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 countries over a couple of weeks is spreading them pretty thinly and hardly makes for explorations à la James Cook. For more than five years my credo had been immersion over sightseeing sprees, dedicating my journey to fewer places instead of hasting through many. But I was curious about the Balkans and what it would be like to accelerate my travel pace to top backpacker velocity. “To each his own,” I like to say, but I must confess that I am not always free of judgement when speaking so generously. I’d often belittled the generic backpacking experience: check in, harvest sights, get wasted, check out, chop chop, repeat. But who was I to judge, especially without having taken a run at speed-packing?
And so I made my way from Sarajevo to Athens in three little weeks, passing through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. Running low on time towards the end, I only brought one day to Albania; just enough to arrive to Tirana on a bus from Prizren, Kosovo and head out the next day towards Athens. It was the epitome of my Balkan race and got me thinking:
How much, or how little, can you learn about a country in one day? Nothing? Some? Plenty?
"...this is pretty much where the flying visit reaches its maximum altitude of inflight insights, falling short of the point where travel peaks in my opinion: when it opens up a more intimate angle on a foreign culture and the people who live it through their habits, everyday rituals, and mannerisms."
First of all, let’s get the terminology straight – what does “country” mean in this context? Are we talking nature, architecture, infrastructure, economics, culture, people, or a mix of these and other dimensions? Some of these lessons are learned more easily than others (the previous sentence lists them in ascending order of difficulty). 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 collected more landscapes and cities from 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 peaks in my opinion: when it opens up a more intimate angle on 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 pastoral landscapes, which could have made for fine oil-paintings in someone else’s century, flew by my bus window. They were peppered 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. Wherever the road ran into a mountain, tunnels were the way to go; no windy roads, no tedious traversing. The majority of cars I saw were German: VW, Mercedes, Audi, and Opel. Most models were older generations, some very old, some brand new. Also Fords, Renaults, Peugeots and others. Later the mountains got taller and rockier, the cliffs steeper, 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 and I walked along one of the main roads towards the city center. 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 plenty of people in the streets worked together to create a lively atmosphere.
"It must have been around 4:28pm when a group of violin-playing women passed through my frame."
The hostel I had looked up was tucked away in an apartment complex in the subtle heart of town, which was fairly indistinguishable. 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 suggested, but after speaking to the owner the receptionist gave me the lower rate. I didn’t want to be that guy, but instead of meeting me with a frown, the owner invited me to a glass of Raki and a cigarette. We went down the staircase and sat at a small table between floors, strategically placed for cigarette breaks that were close yet distant enough from floor two and three. He was a man in his 50s with a demeanor that blended stern with friendly seamlessly. He didn’t speak much English but we both did our best to keep the conversation going and I gathered 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 as many landmarks as I could, starting at Skanderbeg Square. The central plaza was fringed by a diverse 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 (not that tall).
Walking south on a long, straight boulevard that was adorned on both sides by old trees with skinny trunks and buff crowns, I passed by busy parks and squares. Some of the traffic lights hinted at a futuristic future with LED-countdowns 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. A container-shaped, all-glass house near the shore looked like a place to read and swap books, or something of a similar cultural relevance. Street vendors along the palm-lined promenade sold tissues, candy and toys.