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Skopje North Macedonia - Tirana Albania -
Ancona Italy: The Balkans (Part II)
3–6 June 2019 (Mon–Thu)
A quick walk to Skopje Central Terminal for my 9.00AM bus to Tirana Albania. The mountains of North Macedonia and Albania are shocking deep-green with clouds drifting across the landscape. It is a magical-wonderland.
The serenity was only broken at mid-day when two woman and four young children got on the bus and sat next to me in the back. Apparently, the group did not have proper tickets or sufficient funds to pay for passage. The Passenger Manager had a heated conversation with the two women and eventually other passengers become involved in the argument. I wondered if a fight might break-out. I wondered what the four children must think - none over 10 years of age, I guessed. The Manager finally returned to the front of the bus without receiving additional payment and no-one seemed happy. Welcome to Albania.
It is always useful to secure some local currency before arriving but I had not on this occasion. Curiously, no ATM machine and no foreign exchange at the bus station - at least none I could find. The first bank I located must have had 30 people standing outside the door waiting for a security guard to let each in, one at a time - now that is also a discouraging sign. I moved on and eventually found an ATM at Tirana Bank - local banking.
OK, now I can pay for a taxi to my hotel, but Maps.Me reported that I was less than 3km away so decided to take a walking tour of Tirana since I had been sitting on a bus for eight hours. Pleasant walk - found some gelato along the way.
La Boehme Hotel, my home in Tirana, offered a very nice 9th floor room with a balcony overlooking the city. A$100 a night, which is pretty expensive in this city so it should be nice. From pictures sent, Miwa thought Tirana looked like Kathmandu (Nepal) without the pollution and I had to agreed. Ageing, dirty buildings in desperate need of a coat of paint and more. Got settled and wandered around till I found dinner.
First up Tuesday morning - planning how to get to Durres Port in time for my Wednesday ferry to Italy. Edda, the hotel manager, offered a simple solution: a taxi door-to-door that she could organise for A$50. Sold.
Second - my hair looked pretty good, but it will look ragged by the time I arrive in Brussels for my public lecture. Better get it cut now than wait - so if it ends-up a mess then my hair will have time to recover.
Went out in search of an English speaking barber. Must have dropped into 5 or 6 places before I found Toni and Mario's Barber Shop. I don't think Toni gets many Australians in his shop. He did not have great English but just enough and he seemed calm. Toni is from north Albania and has cut hair for 20 years. He and his wife - who is from the same northern city and also cuts hair in a salon on the other side of town - shifted to Tirana for greater opportunity. He said he generally works 7-days a week, but not every week. Now, my hair is a bit too short but most important - it looks normal. We concluded our time together with a selfie.
Briefly visited a very large church - clearly Christian but an orthodox variation - and then went on to the National Museum of History. This country has been occupied repeatedly. Romans, Ottomans, Italians, and the Communist most recently. The massive mountains to the East must have offered some protection, but the Adriatic Sea to the West would have presented defensive challenges. The Albania capital shifted from the coastal city of Durres to Tirana in 1920 because Durres was too difficult to defend. I got the whole story - from Roman ruins to Russian oppression.
Wanted something more positive so went looking for the National Art Gallery, but found the Bunk'Art Museum instead. The woman at the ticket office would only say it was a history museum presented as art. I sensed she was not telling me everything, but upon questioning she would say no more. The fact that it is underground and - I eventually learned - a former bomb bunker should have tipped me off.
It was the story - presented via multimedia and artefacts - of the Security Agency of the Albanian Ministry of Interior especially during the Communist period of oppression (1945-1994). Well, these people are both bold and brave to document - with amazing detail - the horror that the Communist controlled government of Albania inflicted upon its own people. I could not take a single picture but as I was departing, I took a picture of the bunker entrance and it was then that I noticed the watch tower and barbed wire. Albanians that tried to escape were shot and/or tortured and then shot. Too shocking...
The next morning, I went off to Skanderbeg Square, as I had been told that there was an agricultural festival. I found a couple of fellows trying to make a living playing music - I contributed, as they were good - and later, youth dancing in traditional costumes. And of course, lots of Albanian agricultural goods (see pictures). This was uplifting.
Finally found the National Art Gallery where an entire floor was devoted to art during the period of Communist oppression - a happy-face painted on horror. In the museum garden there were statues of Lenin and Stalin and others - Lenin is missing part of his outstretched right arm (see picture). Yes, these statues belong in museums and not in parks and city squares.
I wondered if the contemporary art museum was still caught-up with the Communist era and was please to find nothing about oppression in that museum. The young did not experience this horror and so apparently moved in another direction - as they should - but those still alive will never let go of the intensity and confusion brought to Albania by the Communist.
There was a garden with public art leading into the museum and sitting on a set of rocks was a woman in a red dress. Juliana seemed to be having a cigarette break but at that moment she appeared as the embodiment of art. I asked and she let me take her picture.
Edda, my hotel manager, and I had a pleasant chat about international travel - she was a former geography teacher before shifting into the hotel industry. Edda really wanted to visit Panama, she said. Interesting choice and I told her about my tour of the Panama Canal. And then she called my taxi and I was off to the Port of Durres.
Tirana was intensely enjoyable.
Only stayed in Durres long enough to have a pizza as a late lunch and then boarded the AF Michela operated by AF Adria Ferry Company (see picture). Very different experience from my cargo boat across Caspi. There were escalators and elevators rather than catwalks, and officers providing useful instructions. I was willing to pay for a private room but they were unwillingly to sell that on-line to a single traveller. I ended-up in a room with 48 bunks. Each had curtains but it was still a bit noise that night. I was issued a lower-bunk and locker 111.
It was a big boat with 8 levels. I slept on the 4th level, the restaurant and lounge were on the 5th level and above that were observation levels with the top including a helicopter landing pad. There was no way to visit the control room - unlike my Caspi cargo ship.
Down below were the trucks and cars that had driven-on. It was real interesting watching the big trucks come on. They were pulling in and actually making U-turns. Big boat and lots of people.
I was enjoying the morning ocean views and missed breakfast, which was fine with me as I had purchased bread and a massive Fuji apple before departing Tirana.
We arrived at Ancona port an hour late but that was ok also, as Italian Immigration was quick. Ancona is a beautiful city built around the port with churches above the harbor on a hill.
I enjoyed lunch in the train cafeteria - finally had a salad - and was reminded again how unique Latin culture is when compared to the rest of the world. This is why I go to Latin America every year to teach. Latinos have a style of engaging others that is joyfully-infectious. I cannot do it but I certainly enjoy listening to them speak even though I don't understand a word they are saying. Latin-people have a certain style...
Durres Albania – Ancona, Venice and Milano Italy – Brest France – Atlantic Ocean