When my time in Africa was coming to an end, I faced a difficult self-inflicted choice: spend another three weeks in Ethiopia or visit the Balkans before heading to Greece. “Visit” is a deliberate word choice here, since spreading a couple of weeks over a couple of countries hardly qualifies as exploring. For more than five years the bottom line of my journey had been immersion – dedicating more time to fewer places instead of hasting through many. But I was curious about the Balkans and what it would be like to actually travel at proper backpacker pace. “To each his own,” I always say, but in all honesty I had to admit that a part of me belittled the generic backpacking experience: check in, see sights, get wasted, check out, chop chop, repeat. But who was I to judge, especially without having taken a run at speed backpacking?
And so I made my way from Sarajevo to Athens in merely three little weeks, passing through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. Running out of time towards the end, there was only one day left for Albania: arrive to the capital Tirana on a bus from Prizren, Kosovo and head out the next day towards Athens. It was the epitome of my Balkan race and it got me to thinking:
How much, or how little, can you actually learn about a country in one day? Nothing? Very little? Some? Even a lot?
"...this is pretty much where the flying visit reaches its maximum altitude of inflight insights, falling short of the point where travel gets truly interesting in my opinion: when it fosters a better understanding of a foreign culture and the people who live it through their habits, everyday rituals and mannerisms."
First of all, what does “country” mean in this context? Are we talking nature, architecture, infrastructure, economics, culture, people? Some of these lessons are learned more easily than others (the previous sentence lists them in ascending order of difficulty). Even just passing through a country might allow for a fairly sharp picture of its nature, architecture and infrastructure – I bet there are many tourists who have hoarded more landscapes and cities within my home country than I have. Furthermore, architecture and infrastructure hint at a country’s economic situation and visitors can pick up on these clues. However, this is pretty much where the flying visit reaches its maximum altitude of inflight insights, falling short of the point where travel gets truly interesting in my opinion: when it fosters a better understanding of a foreign culture and the people who live it through their habits, everyday rituals and mannerisms.
What follows is my account of 24 hours in Albania, emptied of any interpretation, open for you to draw your own conclusions if you like…
It was a sunny morning in October and lush pastoral landscapes flew by my bus window. They were sprinkled with little settlements, clusters of houses rather than entire villages, and behind them a gentle green mountain range blanketed by forests rose against the light azure sky. Most houses had plastered walls and gable roofs with shingles, but there were also flat tin roofs and unplastered facades here and there. Some structures looked abandoned. I noticed hardly any cattle alongside the road – only some cows (not fenced in) – and there didn't seem to be much pollution. We were traveling on a proper highway in excellent condition. Mountainous landscape chapters were met with tunnels. No windy roads, no tedious traversing. The majority of cars seemed German, mostly older generation models: VW, Mercedes, Audi, and Opel, some very old, some brand new, most somewhere in the middle. Also Fords, Renaults, Peugeots and others. Later the mountains got taller and rockier, boasting steep cliffs, and the landscape's lushness subsided into aridness for a while.
When I got off the bus in Tirana, the autumn air felt t-shirt-warm. I walked along one of the main roads towards the city center and it was lined by trees and apartment buildings that left me somewhat indifferent, being neither beautiful nor ugly. Currently, the sunshine lit up the light pastel colors, which worked in their favor. Many cafes and restaurants sported outside seating, and with plenty people in the streets the atmosphere was overall lively.
The hostel I had looked up was tucked away in an apartment complex in the somewhat indistinguishable heart of town. I zigzagged through the outdoor tables of two or three restaurants in front, passed by a smelly dumpster and ascended to the third floor. The price upon arrival was substantially higher than my two-minute research the night before had led on, but after speaking to the owner the receptionist gave me the lower rate. I didn’t want to be that guy, but instead of giving me a frown, the owner invited me to a glass of Raki and a cigarette. We went down the staircase half a floor and sat down at a small table, placed there strategically for cigarette breaks, close yet distant enough from floor two and three. He was a man in his 50s with a demeanor that somehow blended stern with friendly. He didn’t speak much English but we both did our best to keep the conversation going and I found out that he had opened the hostel recently. At one time, his son, who must have been in his early twenties, passed by with a pile of paperwork and translated a couple of things his father had struggled to explain for awhile.
In the early afternoon, I set out to gobble up bits and pieces of Tirana, starting at Skanderbeg Square. The central plaza was fringed by a varied architectural lineup – soviet remnants dating back to the communist era, neo-renaissance buildings left from Mussolini’s fascist regime, a mosque, a clock tower, and a modern skyscraper.
Walking south on a long, straight boulevard that was adorned by old and tall trees on both sides, I passed by busy parks and squares. Some of the traffic lights signaled the future with modern designs I had never seen elsewhere. Eventually I arrived at the Great Park of Tirana, whose name wasn’t misleading. Many people were out and about, soaking up the sun around the artificial lake or seeking shelter from it under the abundant foliage. The little container-shaped glass house near the shore looked like some sort of library or book swapping place. Vendors along the palm-lined promenade sold tissues, candy and toys.