The only way we can sum up Albania really is ‘difficult’; difficult first of all for us to find a place to stay; we think there are 10 campsites in the whole of Albanian, we’ve visited 6 of and stayed in 1, difficult to make progress with few signs particularly in Tirane (though very helpful policemen one of which flagged us down when he saw us circle a block and kindly pointed us in the direction of Elbasan) and half built new roads abruptly ending and veering back onto country roads.
Also, and more importantly, however difficult for the people who live in Albania. The land does not look as fertile as in Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro somehow, mining has left its scars on the landscape and now, as always I am sure, people work the land amongst these industrial skeletons and in the steep valleys.
Up and over hills towards the Macedonia border and the Lake Ohrid at Pogradec, we hoped it didn’t live up to it’s name (‘Horrid’!). Our map showed a few campsites scattered along the waters edge on the Albanian side so that was our destination for the evening. There were a few campsites, two of them looking abandoned by the roadside but each with one lonely tent pitched by the lake and with an Albanian car beside.
We choose a large house above the lake which promised restaurant and camping though not a soul in sight. Tentatively we approached and Tony and his son emerged from the terrace. They spoke a little English and I had now figured out please, thank-you, beer and wine in Albanian so between us we figured out a great camping space in his steep, terraced garden with a view out to the lake and Macedonia beyond and that he could provide dinner later too.
As we had beers watching the sun going down Tony came to chat, he told he had been building this place for 15 years and only just opened the restaurant last year. In between he had lived and worked in the US for a while always with the intention to return to his Albania. He seemed sad and frustrated yet extremely proud of what he has accomplished so far. I do this for me and my family and because I love Albania, I want it to be better, it is a great place for tourists I think. I build this, I earn money without help from the government, I pay my taxes because I know we need roads. But…. he shrugged his shoulders and waved his hands agitatedly at the beautifully smooth tarmac of the half built road passing his restaurant…give me my road!
When we asked how was business he told us that he has many regular customers from Macedonia they come for the day, eat his fish, and enjoy the lake because it is cheap and quiet and then go home again. It’s ok he said.
We ate his fish too, Koran fresh from the lake perfectly seasoned and grilled with other traditional Albanian food from his family recipe book such as local speciality Fergese (a dish of baked liver, tomato and cheese) both were amazing along with home fried potatoes (proper hand cut chips just like our mum’s used to make we said – yum!). I’m pleased to say we were joined by many others who did the same and snook out to enjoy the night sky in the peace and quiet by the van.
The following morning after a drive through the hills, coffee in Korçë waiting for the banks to open so that we could change our LEK to Euro we were well on the way to Greece by mid morning.
A strange experience at the border; joining the back of a long line of Greek and Albanian cars, we sat patiently, however lots of the others waiting kept gesturing to us ‘England? – shoosh round!’ they said. Embarrassed and feeling exposed I wandered up to the border police office and explained we’d been told we were in the wrong queue, ‘why?’ the policeman asked, because we’re English I said feeling extremely daft, ah yes you need to come to the front (passing at least 30 cars) move the barrier and go round the outside to the empty lane. After an hour long wait at the Bosnian border and several hours drive still ahead we hated ourselves and felt extremely uncomfortable but followed the instructions and flew through the border crossing into Greece in minutes sad and relieved to be leaving Albania behind.