Introduction...Albania in 2008, and salty pasta in Milan in 2016

Malpensa Travel Blog

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Albania 2008

I'd been to Albania before, in 2008. It was part of a longer trip in the southern Balkans, an overland journey from Sofia Airport to Dubrovnik Airport via Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. Taking the overnight bus to Tirana from Prizren in Kosovo, we quickly arrived at the Albanian border, and I remember thinking that this didn't need to be an overnight bus as at this rate wwe would be in Tirana in a couple of hours. We entered Albania somewhere near Kukes, and the road abruptly stopped. For the next seven hours, we slowly bumped over rubble down what seemed like a mountain track, the distant lights of Kukes below never seeming to get any closer. I must have dozed off eventually, and woke up at dawn just as we were pulling into the most potholed main square I'd ever seen, Tirana's Skenderbeg Square.

Tirana in 2008 was quirky, odd, unusual. I liked it a lot. The new mayor had come up with a brilliant way of brightening up all the grey communist-era housing blocks, embarking on a painting project which resulted in many buildings being given a psychedelic makeover. Geometric patterns, wavy lines, bright colours. If the people wanted their block in pink and green stripes with purple polka dots, then that's what they got! Some had even painted clothes drying on washing lines under their balconies. 

I remember the mosque where the imam told me to come back in an hour on three occasions, each an hour apart. I remember the clocktower that opened for only two hours on a Thursday, when you could climb a rickety set of wooden stairs with no handrail to the top for a view of the slow motion chaos in the potholed square below. I remember the photographer in the square with his selection of props...a palm tree, a lifesize green kangaroo, and a selection of trilby hats. I remember very well the lack of a central bus station and the absence of any tourist information at all, making travelling from town to town something of a challenge. 

One day, I took a bus down to Durres, the second largest city and a major ferry port. A Roman amphitheatre sat ignored in the middle of the older part of town, hidden behind a tower block and some Italian style villas, the gate firmly locked despite a sign saying it was open. After a chilly walk along the deserted seaside promenade, I took a decrepit train back to Tirana taking twice as long as the bus. 

As with most of my trips, time management was an issue. I'd spent longer in Kosovo than I'd planned, and Albania had proved to be just as interesting, so there was a bit of a panic when I realised I only had a short time to get to Dubrovnik. The train to Shkoder was excruciatingly slow, and although I met many friendly passengers on the way, it did mean I was stuck in Shkoder overnight. Not a bad idea normally, but time was a luxury I didn't have. It seemed like a nice place, full of bicycles and cafes. But in the morning, I found out that transport information is just as tricky to get hold of as in Tirana, so it wasn't until late afternoon that I reached the border with Montenegro, needing to cross the entirety of that country and cross into Dubrovnik for my flight the next day at noon...but that's another story.

So Albania...I hadn't seen enough of it to satisfy my curiosity, and always planned to return, something that didn't happen until 2016.

Albania 2016

My eldest brother was invited to teach a week long course in Tirana, and his course was scheduled to finish the day I finished teaching for what we call "independent learning week". Students aren't supposed to travel in this week, and neither are staff, but with no marking to do and no need to go into the office, I decided to carry out some "independent learning" and join him in Albania. 

Flights to Albania from Scotland are not direct, so I had to put my faith in Easyjet getting me to Milan on time to catch a second flight five hours later on Blue Panorama airlines to Tirana. Five hours would have been more than enough time, and I wasn't particularly worried about missing the connection. We began to board the flight at Edinburgh, and not having much luggage, I was happy to sit until the queue died down a bit. But then the passengers who had boarded the plane started coming back into the terminal. A mumbled announcement, and a wave of groaning as the message was passed around that there was a technical problem with the plane, so we'd need to wait for a replacement. When would that be? "Oh we're looking at a six hour wait, as we don't have any spare planes nearby just now". 

"Tee-raah-nee? I don't think we fly to Tee-raah-nee," chirped the Easyjet lady as she typed who knows what into her computer. "Is it in Europe?" 

As my second flight was with another airline, Easyjet weren't able to offer me an alternative flight, or pay for accommodation in Milan for my inevitable stranding there. "We can offer you a complimentary voucher for refreshments, worth £6". Oh, great. 

So that's how I ended up in an overpriced hotel somewhere near Milan Malpensa Airport, eating a salty bowl of rubbery pasta than could very well have seen the inside of a microwave in the overly formal and expensive hotel restaurant. I was not impressed. The room didn't impress either. Hearing the sound of a message coming through on WhatsApp, I reached for my phone only to discover that the sound was coming from someone else's phone. In the next room. 

Luckily Blue Panorama have several flights a day between Tirana and various Italian airports, and they're not a particularly expensive airline, so I was able to get on a flight the next day. Still, when you only have a week, losing a day is more than annoying. 

This blog will roughly tell the story of my "independent learning week" in Albania, the first few days in Tirana with my brother, making a daytrip to nearby Kruje, then setting off on my own to the stone city of Berat for two nights. The return to Scotland took me to Venice, where the plan was to meet up with a colleague who had studied there and was keen to introduce me to his Venetian friends over a few Campari spritzes, before heading to his parents' house near Milan for our flight back to Edinburgh. Not everything goes according to plan though...

planxty says:
Great read if a tale of a bit of a disaster.

I was regulary taken to task on VT about my constant denigration of Sleazyjet, Lyingair and Swizzjet and the sole reason for that was tht all of them had previously let me down so badly. Your story merely brings to mind two old cliches which, like most such terms, has a basisi in truth. First, you get what you pay for and the second is that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.

Posted on: Apr 12, 2017
vicIII says:
Thanks for your interesting narration!:)
Posted on: Apr 12, 2017
The-Jellyfish says:
Congratulations on being featured, very interesting photos from Albania, it's never been on my travel list
Posted on: Apr 12, 2017
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