Travel sometimes throws you a curve ball. When that happens, you either duck the pitch or step up to the plate. At least, that was my take when we called into the port of Durres, Albania, on a cruise a couple of years ago.
Albania. What I know about the entire country could be summed up, in block capitals, on the back of a pygmy’s postage stamp. Enver Hoxha. Norman Wisdom. Erm…. that’s it.
Sealed from the west for decades since the Second World War, Albania sits looking out at the shores of Italy, a scant few hours away by ferry, as if it was some sun splashed version of North Korea, gazing sullenly out at the folks partying just across the street. It was originally occupied by Mussolini, as part of his ham fisted attempt at playing at being a modern Caesar. Once Il Duce lost his grip, the Germans moved in.
When the Germans retreated in October of 1944, the tidal wave of communism that swept the Balkans reached the sea here, at the Albanian coast. As a consequence, Albania became stuck in the stone age for decades to come.
Enver Hoxha ruled with complete autonomy, and poor Albania enjoyed neither the relative liberalism of Tito’s Yugoslavia, or the benefits of the fall of the Berlin Wall- and communism in general- at the end of the 1980’s. The entire country seemed to be stuck in a peculiar place, both in time and space.
To be sure, I had only six hours’ ashore in the port of Durres, on Albania’s southern coast. So what follows is, of necessity, a snap shot. A hurried take. Yet such is Albania’s continued state of incubation from the west, and the travel market as a whole, that some of you may be quite surprised at the conclusions I drew.
Durres was chosen as a stop for the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site at Butrint. It was pouring down with rain and, coward that I am, I wasn’t going anywhere until it stopped. But I can report that those who made the journey to Butrint were suitably awed and impressed by what they saw.
So. Durres,,, an ugly industrial port of the finest kind. It was all rain lashed quaysides, festooned with mountainous piles of heavily sodden sand. The buildings had not seen paint since the late dear leader, Kim-Il Sung, had last seen sense. On the far side of the bay, an ancient destroyer sat tethered to a dock wall. I briefly toyed with the idea of taking a walk and getting a better look at this vintage ship, but I was unsure about how the twitchy local authorities might view such a sortie. I ducked back inside, and grabbed a cappuccino as the rain continued to drum the sodden wooden decks of the Athena,
Noon saw another furtive sortie on deck and, lo and behold, the rain had stopped. Perhaps my silent prayers to Mister Grimsdale had borne fruit after all.
I walked off the ship, heading in the direction of the red and white mosque, with its spindly minarets that stabbed up at the gunmetal sky. It was Saturday afternoon, and the traffic was sporadic. And here came the first real shock.
First came a brace of asthmatic Skodas, put-putting furiously as they attempted one last run along a perfectly straight street. Dull red paint flapped around the wheel rims of one of them as it scuttled half heartedly along the road.
Next came a tuk-tuk that could have been lifted intact from any street in Bangkok, with its open box overflowing with sodden fruit that looked strangely unappetising right at that moment.
And then, to my amazement, a snow white Lamborghini cruised serenely past, looking like a supermodel strutting down Broadway. The immaculate white paint was almost dazzling. Purring like a contented baby cougar, it swished past the other troika of mobile near death experiences, before disappearing out of sight around the next bend,
And this, in so many ways, was what Durres was like. The ancient, the rambling, and the downright shambolic would suddenly be sidelined by some stunning, cutting edge piece of architecture. Nowhere was this more obvious than on the seafront promenade.
The first impression was of a broad, sweeping seafront walkway; one that would not have been out of place anywhere on mainland Europe. Only closer inspection revealed that the dilapidated, deserted fairground rides were throwbacks to the sixties, with screaming, bright red astro cars that looked as if they had been lifted intact from an episode of The Jetsons.
Nearby was a public toilet of such indescribable filth that bombing it would probably have unleashed toxic pestilence across half of Europe. I don’t suppose the absence of any kind of roof helped very much, either.
And yet, the landward side revealed some beautifully manicured, obviously well cared for gardens, as well as some very chic waterfront bars and bistros, now closed against the onset of the coming autumn season (this was late September). Not many people were about, but those strolling about were smartly clad. I even got the occasional smile. These did not seem like sullen, downtrodden, or unfriendly people at all.
Albania’s history goes back to Roman times, and so did some of the cars by the looks of things. In the fifteenth century, the country found itself part of the empire of Venice. Both these ancient Italian colossi left their mark on Durres.
There are stunted Roman columns that give off an eerie glow in the pale sunlight of an autumn afternoon, and ancient stone Venetian ramparts near the harbour that still jut aggressively out to sea. Walking around was a bit like peeling the layers from an onion; the things you saw just made you wonder how much more lay just under that grimy, beguiling facade. And yes, I found it fascinating…
By now, the autumn Adriatic swell was beginning to pound the walls of the promenade. Proof, as if proof were needed, that summer in Europe was truly at an end, and that it was time to batten down the hatches as winter approached these almost uncharted shores.
One thing the Albanians are big on is monuments. Hoxha seemed to think that ‘his’ people preferred concrete Stalinist monstrosities to bread. Tributes to local heroes echo the kind of brutal statuary that sprang up all over the tranche of Europe swallowed up in the Soviet yoke. But, even so, many have an immediacy, and a poignancy that made them all but impossible to ignore. Mussolini’s army had to fight hard for this country, and a nasty little guerilla war sprung up. The Italians behaved with great brutality, shooting many hostages. These are the heroes most often commemorated in this way.
And then, the tiled main street was yet another jarring contrast. Smart bars and cafes abounded, with outdoor patio furniture that would not have disgraced South Beach. Though I should add that the beer prices were a LOT cheaper than those in Miami.
Shops seemed reasonably well stocked, and anything but austere. Even when the rain returned with a vengeance just as dusk began to fall on the town, I found myself in no hurry to return to the welcoming warmth and light of the nearby Athena.
Sure, you’ll find parts of Durres that look as if they have been bombed. But that’s also true of many port towns in far more developed countries than Albania. I think of Albania as a patient that is slowly coming out of a long, deep coma; it is scarred, shell shocked, and more than just a little insular and unyielding.
None of these facts should put you off visiting. The people are no more or less rude than anywhere else and, in general, are very kind and helpful. As with anywhere, go with an open mind, and perhaps a carefully concealed wallet or purse in some parts.
For sure, get there before the big cruise ships start calling on a regular basis. That will definitely come to pass. In fact, I give it ten years before that same, spectacular catastrophe of a promenade is indistinguishable from any other in the Adriatic.
Albania is not the Garden of Eden. But nor is it the Chamber of Horrors. Go see for yourself.