Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

This is one east European capital the stags might want to miss

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk