Part of a cycling trip with my friend Hannes from Greece to Slovenia passing through Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia.

Albania

Bunkers

You notice the bunkers immediately. Still in Macedonia, you peak over the border fence and you see the first follies in concrete. Enver Hoxha ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985 in a backward form of communism. The bunkers are the most visible symptom of his paranoia. In the first years after World War II relations with Yugoslavia were very close until a total break, mirroring the break between Tito and Stalin, occurred in 1948. This cut-off included closing Albania’s border to the west, north and east. That lasted until 1990. With Greece in the south Albania was technically still in a state of war anyway. In 1948 25% of the members of the Communist party were expelled for “Titoism”, a former minister of the interior was executed for the offence. The Soviet Union was the next friend of Albania, but this relationship also did not end well, Hoxha grew vary as the Soviet Union started to reform after Stalin’s death. In 1961 diplomatic relations were broken off, students had to return home from Soviet universities. Albania remained though in the Comecon and the Warsaw Pact until 1968. A decade of a close relationship with China followed but again Hoxha could not agree with reforms carried out after Mao’s death leading to another total break in 1978. From then on until 1990, Albania followed a form of self-isolationism, the economic situation was dire, food had to be rationed while considerable resources were used to build the bunkers. Hoxha was concerned about a foreign attack and the bunkers should help to allow guerrilla warfare all over the country. They are everywhere but the numbers rise along the coast and the borders. 750,000 bunkers were planned and every Albanian man should have a bunker where he should report to in the case of war. Nearly 200,000 bunkers were finished.

We stop at the first bunker, good location, nice view straight back onto the Macedonian border post. It is surprisingly small inside. I’m glad they were never used in war. Psychologically, I think they would have been a disaster. Plenty of isolated soldiers sitting in bunkers that are too small to properly sleep in, getting mad at the world and themselves, ready to give up. Tactically, I also think they would have been a bad investment. The bunkers are essentially clustered in groups with bigger bunkers as command centres and the smaller bunkers watching each other. As soon as you break the chain individual bunkers are fairly easy to take out. They only have one loophole making them difficult to defend if attacked alone.

From the Border to Tirana

The small town of Përrenjas lies beautifully in the valley but we soon realize the failings of our travel plan. We usually try to follow minor roads but we also decided that we want to go to the capital Tirana. Albania is a mountainous country making road construction difficult and there is only one main road leading to Tirana. Communism in the Albanian style did not allow the private ownership of cars so up until that ban was lifted in 1991 there were only 5,000 to 7,000 cars in the whole country with a population of 3,2 million people. (Just as a comparison, Germany currently has 43,8 million cars for a population of 80,7 million. Staying with that skewed analogy, Albania should have had 1,7 million cars instead of 5,000 to 7,000.) Few cars need only small roads so the road infrastructure was totally inadequate for the explosion of cars that was to come after 1991. In short, there is a lot of traffic on the roads we need to take and alternative routes are simply not available.

As the night approaches we realize another problem, Albania seems to have no untouched nature, scattered houses are everywhere and we just cannot find the long stretches of nature that are perfect for pitching our tent. Buying food is also not easy. There are no supermarkets as we know them, just small shops where you have to tell people what you need and our Albanian language skills are lacking badly. For the camping, we get a bit desperate as we pass Elbasan and approach the next mountain pass, passes are usually not good to find a place to sleep. We end up basically pitching our tent in someone’s garden plot. From all the bad options that seems to be the best and there is a small patch of short grass where we can put up our tent without doing any harm. Next morning, around 6 A.M., my companion Hannes wakes me up, someone is coming, and he has a big knife. The friendly elderly man has come to work his plot with his machete, he does not even seem surprised, we manage to make him comprehend that we are from Germany and that we are on the way to Tirana. He goes about his business and we get back on the road. I often find it refreshing in poorer countries that people are a lot more relaxed than people in rich countries.

Tirana

Tirana is an interesting city. Lots of colourful houses, Et’hem Bey Mosque, the Pyramid, originally planned to be a museum to celebrate Enver Hoxha’s life but now graced by a sign “Welcome President Bush”. The USA are popular in Albanian lands as they were seen as crucial to help Kosovo break free from Serbian rule. The Dajti hotel is abandoned, in communist times the best house in the country. We just enter, some rooms on the upper floors seem to be used. We wander through the empty kitchen in the basement.

Albania’s South

We change our way of travelling for Albania, the country isn’t suited to our style of cycling and we have met friends in Tirana. Better to head south with them by bus. We visit Berat with its wealth of Ottoman style houses and head on further south to the sea. After Vlorë the road starts to climb and suddenly as we reach the Llogara Pass a wonderful view opens up on Albania’s southern coastline and the wonderful road leading down to it, stunning! We sleep at the beach in Dhermiu and cock our food on an open fire. The beach is graced by a few bunkers.

The next day, as we wait for a bus, a taxi passes with two people inside that we met in Berat. We pile in and the car brings us to Himare. There, a big argument ensues between the driver and the two original passengers. He tricked them into taking the long ride from Vlorë with an extremely low price. Now he demands wildly more money. But the tourists were also stupid to believe that price, you cannot expect to take a taxi for 70km and then pay with some peanuts. I tell them to meet in the middle. We head on by bus to Saranda. Sometimes I still think I should become a bus driver on this beautiful road, it is narrow and every time another bus or a truck comes the other way we have to reverse and search for a place to overtake. Our driver shows excellent skill. The road has a lot of turns and as a standard for Albania the attendant hands out plastic bags to the people in need. I remember another instant from that journey; a nearly full bottle of water was rolling around in the bus and the attendant picked it up, no one claimed ownership and he gleefully threw it outside. Please put your rubbish in the bin next time.

Saranda is the only town on that stretch of coast. The Greek island of Corfu lies just right in front of it. I go out to eat with my friend Tanja, she orders a beer, I a coke. She gets the coke, I get the beer. Gender stereotypes are alive and well.

Leaving Albania

From Saranda we head back to Tirana, jump on the bikes again and take the big road north to Shkodra. Just as Rozafa Fortress comes into view, we cross the old bridge and ride on to Montenegro.