Northern ALBANIA – Durres & Tirana

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Durres seemed wild, its air spiced with danger. It was dirty, chaotic and pulsating with music and life. I loved its savage nature.  As a Navy officer, my Grandfather was docked in Durres, called out to sweep mines from the Adriatic sea during WWII. Now sixty something years later I find myself in the very same city almost by accident.

The journey to get there had been horrific. Looking back, I think I almost died. After two days recovering, me and Fjolla were eager to explore; it was after all our first time in the land of Eagles.

Being able to communicate with the locals in Italian was a relief; without a car / map / faintest idea of where to go or what to see this common language was a life saver. Albania after all Italy’s neighbour, separated by a tiny slither of silvery sea. The people shared many characteristics and traits which instantly made me feel at home. I was used to chaos and uncertainty in any case having spent my childhood years visiting Napoli.  Durres and it’s people reminded me of the deep South of Italy.  Puffs of moped fumes filled the nostrils, interrupted by wafts of street food. Burly looking money touts held wads of Lek with huge paddle hands, wearing grubby vests stood on street corners with shifty eyes.

There was no order in building construction – huge apartment blocks were built with no logical order, some levels incomplete yet never the less families dined on the barrierless balconies.  Most constructions had a cuddly toy hanging from its highest scaffold – I’ve never been able to find out why.

Even going to the ‘Plaxh‘ (beach) was an experience not for the faint hearted. We passed crumbling houses with fresh animal hides strung up to dry in the garden. The beach was dirty and overcrowded with row upon row of second hand sunchairs imported from Italy, each a different colour to the next.  When we eventually found a place to lie we were constantly hounded by beach sellers, some of them children with blackened skin lugging heavy boxes of bananas or charring corn from mobile grills.  At one point I felt something soft brush past my foot just as Fjolla poked me with a sense of urgency. A bear playfully bounded along the water’s edge, yanked back every so often by a chain wielding gypsy.

At night the main street running behind the seafront constructions burst into life when live music venues opened their doors and yanked up their speakers. From sun down each venue tried to out-do its neighbour, until eventually buildings shook and pavements vibrated.  Synthesiser, clarinet, and wailing vocals deafened but only added to the bizarre nature of the place. Soft speaking on the mic followed by wailed lyrics ‘Aman aman aman offf amaaaan!’ pleaded and beckoned revellers, perhaps some of the thousands of Kosovans who annually flocked to Durres for a summer vacation. The turbo folk music, called Tallava, was both tragic and exciting. It’s hard percussion enticed traditional circle dancing called Valle, in where dancers join hands and move in unison. Seen at times of celebration, this particular valle was danced in the spirit of summer aided by whisky and coca cola.

Boarding a bus we attempted to leave the noise behind and travelled further down the main street. The bus was an old Italian model, crammed with people trying not to fall out a gap where the door should have been.  My hair flapped around my face like mad and I struggled to keep my balance while freeing wayward strands from my lipglossed mouth. The music venues and eateries were endless, as were hoards of people in search of holiday cheer. I just couldn’t believe this experience!  It was a crazy city and I loved it.

In 2009 my wish of returning was granted. One of my best friends in London, Ida, returned to live in her hometown, Durres.  Ida’s family welcomed me with open arms and I was eager to communicate using my knowledge of Albanian albeit with a very Kosovan village dialect. At least it was an ice breaker and cause of much laughter. Ida’s mother took the chance to practice her English, and her father was incredibly genteel and welcoming. They were in true Albanian style, the epitome of hospitable with plenty of warm greetings and abundant tables.

Durres wasn’t the wild city I’d previously encountered. It had an ancient core with historical buildings and sophisticated cafes.  Even touristic signs in English had sprung up since I’d been away.  The city had become user friendly! That long winding road from Pristina to Durres had been made redundant by the construction of a new motorway which connected Albania to its neighbours. Cutting journey times by a quarter, I imagined how many lives it saved too!

Tropikal resort was our day-time hang out where we sunbathes and had a great seafood lunch in their restaurant. Coincidently their head chef is an Italian from Bari! In an ironic reversal Italian were heading over the Adriatic in search for jobs in Albania’s booming economy when the rest of Europe was failing miserably. For a peace & quiet I reccomend Mal I Robit, a quiet beach and resort at the south of the city. Be sure to drop by Bosna for some awesome Byrek too!

Most evenings we ventured into Tirana with house music blaring from the car stereo and Ida beeping furiously at truck drivers meandering from lane to lane. From Durres, Tirana was a meer half hour drive by motorway.

‘This is what its like to be young and fearless in Albania.’ Ida joked. Simply wonderful but at times utterly terrifying!

The view from hotel Xheko Imperial‘s roof top restaurant was breathtaking. Fountains splished and spattered as waiters bustled around us, serving us expensive Italian wines. From the table I could see Tirana sprawling out and creeping up its surrounding hills, illuminated by the last of the day’s sunlight.

‘Most of those buildings are totally illegal’ laughed Ida’s Swiss property developer friend, as he primly dissected a huge piece of grilled veal. His little finger stuck up as if shocked.  He’d been living in Tirana for a number of years and loved Albania. I could see why. It was a mix of old and new, of poor and rich. It was wild. The beaches were virgin.  Albania is the kind of exotic and bizarre place you might read about but never dream of visiting.  Poverty vs. wealth, old vs. new, traditional vs. eccentric. Albania was an undiscovered gem, a diamond in the rough and a land of contrasts.  Albania in its antiquities also boasts the height of modern eccentricities.  Village and city life were worlds apart but happily co-existed.

As the sun set Blloku quarter filled up with thousands of well dressed youths almost every evening of the week.  Girls tottered too and fro in killer heels and fuscia lipstick followed by plumes of perfume.  Men sporting tans and open shirts puffed on Marlborough Reds and spoke loudly into mobiles to make sure they were seen and heard.

Era restaurant buzzed, the food was both good and cheap. Well, everywhere in Albania was cheap. House music filled the air and a sense of freedom which I would never have known existed in Albania had it not been for this visit, thrived.  We bar hopped; first Planet Bar, then Folie Terrace.  Later on we found ourselves at the Living Room where we danced on a very overcrowded roof terrace overlooking Skenderbeg Square. Some evenings we’d go to Mai Tai, a huge open air resort high on a hill open until the early hours. If only the UK had bars like these! Tirana’s nightlife was like none I had experience.

On a day Ida was called into work, I was left to my own devices.  After a lovingly prepared breakfast and some chatter with her parents, Ida’s mother took me to the local Pazar (that’s a market to you and me) where vendors sweated under tarpaulin.  Proud to show off her English guest, she introduced me to people left right and centre.  That afternoon I wondered down to the Plaxh area where I’d stayed with Lora two years earlier.  The smell of sufllaqe (like Greek souvlaki) remained hung in the air, along with the live music venues filled with hundreds of haphazardly organised plastic chairs.  Posters of heavily made up singers peeled from walls after many years of layering. In the light of day with the absence of music and people, the venues looked like ghosts.   Walking under the baking sun, it was some time before I reached Hotel Romana.  I stared as I remembered how sick I was when we’d checked in after the terrible journey from Kosovo.  I wished to go into revisit my almost-deathbed but how could I even begin to tell to the staff why I wanted to look around?!

‘I nearly died here two years ago!’ they’d look at me as if I was mad as I tried to explain in a mix of pidgin Albanian and Italian.

Later that evening Ida’s brother arrived from Italy after a long ferry ride from Trieste. I had a chance to finally see the port where my Grandfather was docked during WWII.  That night we danced valle around the living room after eating a meal of lamb and okra, the homecomer’s favorite meal.

My last day in Albania was a Sunday.  Ida’s father took us for lunch by the seafront where we ate grilled fish and drank wine.  I sat under the shade of the vines in that humble restaurant, bathing in the warm air of the Mediterranean and listening to my host family’s soft chatter.  I tried to swallow the lump which was choking me, how I loved these warm and hospitable people. My last memory is being waved off by Ida and her smiley father who’d accompanied me to Nene Teresa airport. Ida, I’ll be back soon xxx

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