Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
This is one east European capital the stags might want to miss
Saturday 25 March 2006
The collective noun for a group of sleepy travellers congregating in a hotel reception for an early-morning bus transfer should be a "yawn" of tourists. But one spring morning 20 years ago, in the only hotel in Albania's northern city, Shkoder, shocking news cut through the bleariness of dawn.
In Europe's poorest country, chambermaids routinely checked the rooms within seconds of guests leaving, in case they had decided to lift the attractive plastic flowers or non-functioning short-wave radio. This cold morning, though, what alarmed the hotel staff was what had been left behind: Bibles.
The regime run by the Enver Hoxha was tyrannical. Religion was outlawed: every trace of Islam was erased, and guides at historical sites referred to dates "before our era" and "in our era" rather than Christian-inspired BC and AD. Clandestine evangelists were undeterred. When the first short-break to Albania was announced, a family of four had signed up for it. They kept themselves to themselves, but they definitely didn't keep their holy books to themselves. At the border from the former Yugoslavia, some women in the group had copies of Cosmopolitan confiscated because of the risqué pictures. Yet, the family had managed to smuggle in dozens of Bibles.
While the rest of us wandered wide-eyed through the strangest of lands, they were trying to win the hearts and minds of Albania's 2.5 million oppressed citizens. When their subterfuge was uncovered, our guides chose not to create a diplomatic incident. After confiscating every scripture from the family's luggage the four were allowed to join us on the wheezy old bus to the Yugoslav frontier. The rest of us felt a sense of betrayal.
Perhaps they have returned to Albania since as part of the deluge of ideologies, from capitalism to Christianity, filling the post-communist vacuum. If not, then they could reacquaint themselves on another pioneering trip. On Monday, the last significant European country with no air connection from the UK finally gets a link. British Airways is adopting the Ryanair technique of flying to places you didn't know you wanted to visit - in this case, from Gatwick to the oddest corner of the Balkans. And the first flight to Albania will land at an airport named after a nun.
"From the moment you land at Mother Teresa International Airport, you know you're in for a break to remember," says BA. A threat or a promise? Despite the airport's saintly name, Albania charges a €10 (£7) admission fee, and the same to get out. Proffer anything other than the exact money, and you can expect your change in a miscellany of currencies, such as US dollars and Serbian dinars. Now, how to get into town?
Not a kidnapping, I concluded, as I was bundled into the back of a van - they are simply trying to help. The cartel of airport cabbies charge a fortune for the half-hour ride to Tirana, while the dark, noisy minibuses that race up and down the nation's highways are cheap and crowded. On board, you get to know the Albanians intimately; a fine bunch they (almost) all are: gregarious and generous to a fault. As the conveyance spluttered off along roads resembling wartime trenches, my fare was declined; the pair of students who had helped me into the van insisted on buying my ticket to the building site that only faintly resembles the Tirana of old.
The Albanian capital comprises a baffling patchwork of weary old homes and shiny new offices, interspersed with apartment blocks that resemble giant paintboxes. The city's fast-changing skyline is a confusion of cranes, minarets and high-rises. Unlike Prague and Ljubljana, Albania's capital lends itself neither to cultural tourism nor stag and hen parties, however cheap the brandy. One night in Tirana is quite enough, before you escape to the beaches, mountains and classical ruins of what was ancient Illyria. Happily, you can combine the wild east of Europe with the tranquil west of Greece, crossing from the southern port of Saranda to the island of Corfu.
Twenty years ago, the Straits of Corfu formed the maritime equivalent of the Berlin Wall: a mile-wide channel between the free world and the misty shoreline of the most insular country in Europe.
Travellers' lore was full of tales of holidaymakers who, after one ouzo too many, had decided to swim to Albania and were variously arrested, shot or harpooned for their trouble. And they weren't even trying to bring in Bibles.
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