Strange Days

There will, inevitably, be the odd day where nothing goes to plan. Sometimes, days like these are annoying. Sometimes, they are just funny. Despite the fact that your correspondents have been fortunate enough to travel to many different countries in Central and Eastern Europe, nothing too serious has happened. There has been the odd brush with authority – for example, the young German policemen who delivered a stern lecture on the dangers of crossing a completely empty road early on a Sunday morning – but nothing to cause the blood pressure to rise unduly.

Things can go wrong. Take the example of an acquaintance who boarded a train in Hamburg with the intent of making a local, ten-minute journey, but instead found himself on the non-stop express to Berlin. This, of course, is down to stupidity and nothing else. One of his excuses was that all the signs were in German. How terribly unreasonable of the Germans to display signage in their own language. Besides which, ‘Berlin’ in German is, er, ‘Berlin’. One might even add the improbability of a large, twelve-carriage train providing a local stopping service, but there is no need to labour the point.

Thankfully the Duck Holiday team has never encountered a problem as big as this (nor, indeed, an idiot as big). There have, though, been moments of surrealism and a selection is presented below.

Tirana – Photographers Beware

Some years ago, the Duck Holiday team (though not on holiday) were ambling along the sea-front in Accra. Ahead was a rather pretty little lighthouse that demanded a photo. The photo was duly taken. It was only some minutes later that we were able to see the sign that informed us of grievous penalties for anyone taking a photograph of the lighthouse.

Thus it was with the railway station in Tirana. As might be imagined, Tirana’s railway station is not large. There are no international services and what services there are tend to be something of of trial of patience for travellers. Even the most eager train buff would find it hard going.

Illicit photo of Tirana station

Illicit photo of Tirana station

The station was there, though, and there seemed no reason not to take a photo of it, if only for the sake of novelty. Little seemed to be happening, with no imminent departures or arrivals and not a passenger in sight. A couple of men lounged around, chatting over a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

It soon became apparent, however, that there was, indeed, a very good reason not to take photographs. One of the men, who may or may not have been the station-master, leapt to his feet and began to shout and wave his arms around. Not being conversant with the Albanian language, we shall never know what he was shouting, but it seemed unlikely that he was saying, “Welcome, take as many pictures as you like.”

Beware of Men in Blue Shirts

Beware of Men in Blue Shirts

Later that day, and considerably wiser, we strolled around the area known as Blloku (‘the Block’), the part of town that was sealed off to ordinary Albanians during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Even now, it seemed, the area of the former president’s house was something of a no-go area. Men in black suits and dark glasses wandered menacingly. Even light inspection suggested that this was not a remake of The Blues Brothers. The Duck Holiday team kept their cameras firmly hidden away.

Lake Balaton – Dog Days

The hotel on the shores of Lake Balaton provided some of the finest views one could wish for. The hotel itself was perfectly pleasant and comfortable. Unfortunately, it also catered for dogs as well as humans.

The room next door to that occupied by the Duck Holiday team contained an Austrian family, who seemed to be perfectly affable people. It also contained a large Alsatian, who did not appear to be quite so amiable, especially when left to its own devices.

Nice view (shame about the dog)

Nice view (shame about the dog)

The Austrians (human, that is) were evidently early risers and would depart for breakfast at the earliest possible opportunity. The Duck Holiday team, while happy to start quite early in the day, prefer to linger in bed just a little longer than such enthusiasts. The problem was that the dog took considerable umbrage at being deserted and proceeded to bark its head off while its owners were absent.

Even nicer with the sun out

Even nicer with the sun out

Such behaviour does not help those that wish to have an extra half hour’s sleep. There was little that one could do except copy the regime of our neighbours and rise somewhat earlier than was truly desirable.

One morning, during the by-now familiar barking session, one of the Duck Holiday team lost all patience. Standing directly outside the door behind which the monster lurked, she yelled, “SCHWEINHUND!”. There was silence. The dog, possibly surprised at being addressed in its own language, shut up. Naturally, the silence did not last long, but the momentary quiet was most welcome.

Vilnius – Mystery Restaurant

The guide book was very in-depth and contained an extensive list of eating establishments in the Lithuanian capital. One of these was an Indian restaurant that appeared to be of good quality. While one always seeks out something local by way of food, Duck Holiday is very partial to Indian food (one of our few boasts is that we have dined at the world’s most northerly Indian restaurant, in Reykjavik). It seemed worth a visit.

While the book did not give the precise address, it informed us that the restaurant in question was in a street named Jogailos. This street, centrally located, was not by any means long, so it appeared to be fairly straightforward. We walked up the street and failed to spot the target. We walked back down the street with much the same result. We tried up on the opposite side, then down again on that side. Nothing doing.

Spot the restaurant (no, we couldn't)

Spot the restaurant (no, we couldn’t)

A café was open and while we took a cup of coffee, we enquired of the waitress whether she knew where the restaurant was. She spoke excellent English, so there were no communication problems, but she had never heard of it. This was not encouraging. She asked a few people in the café, but it seemed that this particular restaurant was completely unknown.

Nope, still can't see it

Nope, still can’t see it

A quick check of the map revealed that there was a tourist information office not far away. The results there were similar to what we had experienced in the café. Vilnius, it, appeared, had a ghost restaurant. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that there must, once, have been an Indian restaurant on Jogailos, but that it had closed down.

Tirana – Europe’s Least Visited Capital

National Museum

National Museum

Two work colleagues were having a conversation about holidays. “Nobody” said one “goes to Albania for a holiday”. Now I know that it is rather impolite to interrupt, but it was impossible. “I did” I said. For a few moments, I was the recipient of one of those “Are you kidding?” looks. Then they realised I was being serious.

Unfortunately – and most of us are guilty at some stage – we often have preconceptions of places, people and many other things. The less we know, the more we may be tempted to imagine. Why, though, should Albania seem such a distant and mysterious country? It is, after all, closer to the UK than Greece.

Tirana is both one of the smallest and newest of European capitals. While there has been a settlement at the site for a long time, it has only been the capital since the 1920s. For a traveller, there is novelty value and a smallness of scale that makes the city easy to explore.

There is plenty of accommodation for visitors and it is not difficult to find small and cheap hotels that offer good facilities. The Tafaj Hotel is a fine example. It is a rather splendid Ottoman villa with a delightful courtyard and is a short walk from the central Skanderbeg Square. There are numerous guesthouses for the budget traveller as well as the usual suspects at the more expensive end of the market.

A three or four day visit is ample. There may be no immediately obvious tourist attractions, but the fact that the city appears to be so little visited adds to its appeal. It is also an architecturally unusual place, with some decaying, but still stylish, old Ottoman-style buildings and a substantial number of more modern and decidedly Communist edifices, particularly in the centre near Skanderbeg Square. The style is a mixture of Chinese and Soviet. Albania and the Soviet Union had a decidedly uneasy relationship and the former had much closer ties with China.

Not too far away from the square is an even odder sight. The daughter of the dictator Enver Hoxha commissioned an extraordinary (and extraordinarily tasteless) building to serve as a mausoleum and monument to her father. Known as the Pyramid, this abomination now serves as a cultural centre. There is an ongoing debate about the future of the building and it is possible that it may be pulled down.

Hoxha pyramid

Hoxha pyramid

One lingering hint of the days of dictatorship is that the visitor must be a little careful when taking photographs. The villa of Hoxha is in a central street that appears, at first glance, perfectly normal, filled as it is with shops and cafes. It soon becomes obvious, though, that the area is patrolled by rather sinister-looking men in black clothing, who give the distinct impression that any attempt to take photographs could have uncomfortable consequences. The railway station, despite being very small and having the appearance of being little bigger than that of a small market town, is another place to avoid waving a camera around. Otherwise, though, taking photos seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Station (illicitly)

Station (illicitly)

The National Art Gallery (on Skanderbeg Square) is a genuine treat. A highlight is the collection of Socialist Realist art, much of it in the style of Communist propaganda posters, all handsome, smiling and muscular working men and women. The gallery also features the art that failed the test by displaying people who simply did not look happy or optimistic. The unfortunate artists responsible were promptly flung into prison for the purposes of re-education.

Also on the square – one can hardly miss it – is the vast National History Museum with its truly weird mosaic on the façade. The museum is well laid out and offers a comprehensive traipse through Albania’s history, from ancient archaeological finds to the modern post-Communist era. Both the art gallery and museum charge small admission fees, though there are other, smaller museums that offer free entry.

National museum mural

National museum mural

Nothing is radically expensive in Tirana; indeed, much is very cheap. Traditional Albanian food tends to be quite a meaty affair, but for vegetarians, there are plenty of pizzas and salads (try one with some Albanian olives, as these are excellent). Despite being a largely Muslim country, it’s easy enough to buy a drink and there is, in fact, a local brewery that produces the imaginatively-titled Tirana Beer, a Pilsener-style lager that is refreshing on a hot summer’s day and can be reasonably safely quaffed as it is a sensible 4.0% ABV.

The city is small enough to walk around without needing to resort to public transport, and even when it’s hot (and summer is very hot) there are lots of places to stop for an iced tea. There’s no harm in buying a coffee on a hot day as you always get a glass of iced water to go with it. The best coffee is at the Opera House on Skanderbeg Square and it’s also a great place to sit and watch what’s going on.

Opera House

Opera House

Everything revolves around Skanderbeg Square and after a day or two, the visitor will be familiar with every inch of it. This is also the place to catch the bus to the airport (where the largest of Tirana’s many Mother Teresa statues stands). The bus service is efficient and a great deal cheaper than a taxi, a couple of pounds covering the cost of a ticket.

Tirana has some pleasant green spaces, the largest being the Grand Park. This has some lovely, shaded walks and there is a sizeable artificial lake, though sadly this seems to be entirely devoid of birdlife. Those who need to shop are well catered for, with some surprisingly trendy malls and streets as well as old-fashioned markets. Among the latter is a fish market, though disappointingly nobody has taken the opportunity to use the name Tirana Fish.

Albania has a Mediterranean coastline and for those with an adventurous spirit and strong leg muscles, mountains and spectacular countryside. Tirana is well worth seeing, however, with its curious mix of the old, the new and the downright weird. You won’t be trampled in the rush.