Grand tours: Grey walls and a big pink pyramid

Adventures in literature: Alex Hickman finds bizarre contrasts in Tirana

Giving into an 'overwhelming urge to run away', Alex Hickman wangled his first postgraduate job reporting for a Sarajevo-based newspaper. The Balkans had long fascinated Hickman and he eventually ended up in Albania where, in 1996 after a bizarre appointment to the government, he found himself ringside as the country fell into chaos. Currently heading Britain's anti-euro campaign, Hickman's latest travels have taken him to Africa where he worked for a youth development charity, based in Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Here, in this extract from his book 'Slow Winter', we meet Hickman on his first visit to the Albanian capital where he acquires a limp, and a walking stick to ward off stray dogs, before setting out to explore Tirana's streets.

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Sunday 31 December

New Year's Eve

Busy Skanderberg Square wakes me up. After a breakfast of shortcake and coffee I set out into the Square. The winter sunlight is blinding and I feel suddenly nervous of the noise and the people. Half way across the Square I

look wistfully back at the tall hotel. I feel like I am leaving the womb. But the real world of Tirana brings me to with the harsh efficiency of a midwife's smack. I narrowly avoid being run over by a truck loaded with aggregates. It curses me with a rude blare of its horn and I shake my stick at its rear, like some furious old man. Back on the pavement I am targeted by the string of handicapped beggars lying grotesque on strips of cardboard outside the Palace of Culture. A Western cripple - rich pickings. But I have the advantage of masked speed and soon they are fumbling furiously in my wake.

Turning out of the Square I follow Tirana's Champs Elysées, Deshmoret e Kombit Boulevard, down towards Tirana Park. Directly behind me is the hotel and its stubborn memory over my shoulder is somehow reassuring. The boulevard is wide and lined with tall pines. A banner decorated with clumsy berries and holly hangs overhead. "Merry Christmas" it wishes the passers-by in English. Beneath it squat a few traders, their goods laid out on the pavement, including Christmas cards with messages written in English. Behind a copse of pines stands the Dajti. On the other side of the boulevard spreads a small park, full of coffee shops (known locally as kiosks). Most have been designed with escape in mind - alpine chalets or fairytale cottages, built at the end of twee paths, among ferns and small pools. Far away from Tirana. I cross a dirty canal, the "river" Lana. On the far side is a massive, pink marble pyramid, originally built as a "life and times" museum to Enver Hoxha in 1988, the 80th anniversary of his birth. Designed by the dictator's architect daughter, Pranvera, it stands among flower beds and marble steps and more (empty) fountains. Today it is used as a nightclub. Past the pyramid, grey ministry buildings face each other across the boulevard. At the end of the boulevard, behind another defunct fountain, is the university, stained with graffiti and empty looking. Beyond spreads the city's park. In the middle of the park is a lake, where a couple of men are fishing from a rowing boat. Behind them a damp meadow, hills and fringes of grey woodland. Watching the fisherman, all trace of the city suddenly recedes - there is not a telegraph pole or the sound of traffic. Just a piece of water and two men fishing in a wilderness.

Back in Skanderberg Square I wander around an enormous hole dug next door to the Tirana. According to my Blue Guide it is known as Hajim's Hole, named after the Kosovan who dug it soon after the fall of Communism, as the foundations for a new Sheraton Hotel. But before Hajim could fill his hole he quietly left the country with a lot of investors' money. Now he is in prison in Switzerland, his millions no doubt confiscated by the KLA and his hole remains unfilled, full of green water.

Readers of 'The Independent on Sunday' can order a copy of 'Slow Winter' (published by TravellersEye at £7.99) for the discounted price of £6.99 (including p&p in the UK). Contact TravellersEye (020-8743 3276; Monday-Friday 9.00am-6.00pm. Not Bank Holiday Monday).

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