Pushing the Boundaries
Our research trip to Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, June 2013
It probably comes as no surprise to the reader to learn that, once we have decided to explore the possibility of a tour to a new destination, we have to do our homework and, where appropriate, our fieldwork too. What is perhaps unusual is that we have decided to write it up, bad bits as well, for everybody to read. We aren’t trying to put you off, of course! Far from it – we hope that, like us, you will get a lot of enjoyment out of being a pioneer to an area which, thus far, has seen virtually no tourism of any kind. That, perhaps, is the point – we want all customers who sign up for this tour to know exactly what it was like for us so that they can make up their own minds whether it is also right for them.
It is important to stress from the outset that, although Kosovo is a “new” country with KFOR peacekeeping troops still very much in evidence, we felt completely safe at all times. Crime is low in all the countries visited and we kept well out of the way of those areas which border Serbia and where tensions are still occasionally reported. In fact, the nearest we got to becoming the victims of crime was the usual occupational hazard of being ripped off by taxi drivers.
Day 1- and so it was that, on the morning of Wednesday 12 June, my wife, Pam, and myself boarded a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul at Gatwick.
We arrived at Pristina, capital of Kosovo, in the mid evening and the rest of the passengers very quickly melted into the night blackness outside the tiny airport. In fact, everybody on the plane except us seemed to be being met by somebody and this, we thought, was probably the reason that Pristina Airport doesn’t appear to be served by public transport of any kind.
Within minutes we were alone apart from about half a dozen taxis with their drivers, all with their prey in their sights. Easy, I thought. Six of them for just a couple of customers is good for competition and will keep the price down. Big mistake. Pristina taxi drivers hunt in packs.
I had been told by a very helpful young girl on the flight on her way to Mitrovica (one of the potential trouble spots) that the going rate from airport to city centre is 10 euros – Kosovo isn’t in the EU but has the euro as its national currency. So, with all the confidence that a seasoned tour leader might be expected to show, I offered my ten euros to be greeted with a chorus of laughter from all the taxi drivers. “Twenty five,” was the eventual reply.
“OK, fifteen.” More laughter.
“Twenty,” said one of the drivers.
I wasn’t going to budge but it had started to rain. There were six of them and only two of us and suddenly our bargaining position didn’t look good. Then, miraculously, another potential customer appeared out of the shadows. He wanted to go to the bus station and would share our taxi. One of the taxi drivers was grudging but agreed – we would pay our fifteen euros and I’ve no idea what the other customer paid, presumably at least five and possibly more.
We set off for the city, consoling ourselves that, when I come next time with a group, we will have a private bus to pick us up.
Pristina in the rain and darkness didn’t look a very attractive place. The outskirts were dominated by typically Communist shabby high rise – we had seen it all before in countless Eastern European cities, particularly those that had been thrown into capital city responsibilities at short notice. The Budapests and Pragues of Eastern Europe are few and far between. We called at the long distance bus station and then made for our hotel, the Sirius. The taxi driver was still muttering about the price we should have paid when he dropped us. We were at least thankful that he had kept his side of the bargain and brought us to the right hotel.
The hotel looked very grand – by far the nicest looking building we had seen. The receptionist was expecting us and gave us a warm welcome. Our room was beautifully clean and nicely furnished and the air con worked. Maybe Pristina wasn’t so bad after all.
Day 2 - Some of the excursions arranged for the 2014 tour were not available to us as we had no road transport and so today was a day for checking out Pristina and the hotel, in particular. The front office manager, Fidane, showed us around the hotel which, as we suspected, was brand new. They specialised in business clients and Fidane proudly showed us the conference facilities. The restaurant on the top floor where we had taken breakfast and which was also open for evening meals daily boasts a “commanding view of the city”. It does indeed, though whether a commanding view of Communist high rise is something to boast about is a matter of debate. Swimming pool, sauna and fitness room concluded the tour and we asked for directions to the city centre. It was 1030 and we were wondering how to spend the rest of the day.
The city centre is just across the road from the hotel and about two minutes walk down a side street. It consists of a wide pedestrianised boulevard with rather attractive fountains at one end and a number of pavement cafés and restaurants. It had clearly been newly engineered and the fountains, in particular, were still a source of great novelty to the youngsters. The overnight rain had stopped, the sun was out and it was already quite hot.
We walked the length of the boulevard and continued past the university which was attractively set in its own grounds. There was no shortage of places for lunch and, in the afternoon, we found an area of parkland with some shade. Pristina was nice enough but, in truth, doesn’t really need a complete free day.
That evening we ate in the hotel’s top floor restaurant and enjoyed the commanding view of the high rise.
Day 3 - We were due to move on by train to Peja but trains in Kosovo are very few and far between and ours wasn’t due until 1630. We decided to have another walk in the city and this time ventured further than the city centre. Pam was delighted to note that, instead of the usual department stores, Pristina is a city of small shops – hundreds of them and most seemed to be shoe shops. The rest were either small owner managed boutiques or grocers. She noted that the range of shoes and clothes on offer was very much greater than at home and, generally, was considerably impressed.
On leaving the city centre, we found ourselves on Bill Clinton Boulevard and even came across his statue. It seems that Kosovo is so grateful to the western allies for help in their recent civil war, that there are many such marks of gratitude in various cities.
It’s also worth mentioning that this gratitude spills over into a genuine friendship which the people had for us. Everywhere we went in Kosovo, we found the local people eager to help and so grateful that we wanted to visit their country. “Do you like Kosovo?” they all wanted to know and seemed amazed when we answered “Yes.”
Around 1530 the hotel called a taxi for us and we arrived at the station much too early for the 1630 train. The station is tiny – just a small station building with booking office, a waiting area with an awning and a single platform. I booked two tickets to Peja at the old fashioned booking office – so old fashioned that the clerk had to write them out.
Kosovo’s rail system is still administered by the UN and was by far the best of the three countries we visited on this trip. The empty stock for our train arrived about 1615 – a former Norwegian Nohab diesel loco, two former Swedish coaches reserved for a school party and four rather smartly refurbished Austrian (“Swiss style”) coaches with pull-down windows for the rest of us. It was Friday afternoon and the train was busy with students going home for the weekend. We got the impression that the reservation for the very large school group was an ad hoc arrangement by the station staff and train conductor when the group turned up and took them by surprise. Kosovo, like other countries in that part of the world, doesn’t do reservations in the normal course of business.
The station staff had assembled passengers on the correct part of the platform before the train’s arrival. I asked one of the students what was going on and she was happy to explain where we had to stand.
“Peja is a beautiful city,” she said. “It is my home.”
I thanked her for her help.
“Nothing,” she replied. I had already realised that this was Kosovan English for “Don’t mention it.”
This train journey was our first real sight of the Kosovan countryside and we weren’t disappointed. The two hour journey was a mixture of rolling hills, deep wooded valleys and, towards the end, high mountains which blocked the railway’s further progress towards the Montenegro and Albanian borders.
Peja is a small regional centre – they don’t call it Peč nowadays because that’s what the Serbians called it! We were wary about asking the taxi driver the cost of the transfer to the hotel but this one quoted a very reasonable two euros. The hotel, the Dukagjini, was in Tony Blair Street right in the centre of the town where the main shopping street enters a pedestrian zone alongside the small river. It looked very nice – modern but built in an older style of architecture. The town itself is surrounded by the Rugova Mountains and there is a very attractive central square with gardens. The hotel has a couple of nice restaurants and we settled on the one which fronts the square and doubles up as a public restaurant – a good choice at very reasonable prices and they have a truly amazing selection of ice creams for dessert!
“I think your ice cream is wonderful.”
Day 4 - We were shown around the hotel by Vjolica – she seemed particularly keen to show us the penthouse and it certainly was impressive – no doubt with a price to match. We didn’t dare ask.
Then it was time to explore the town. There’s not a lot to it but we found its compact size and lovely setting a welcome change from bustling Pristina and it was not long before we found ourselves on the road out of town towards the Rugova Gorge. After about half an hour we came to a KFOR check point. The soldiers (Swedish, I think) didn’t seem to be checking anything – they sat by the roadside chatting whilst the occasional motor vehicle drove through without stopping. Even so, judging from its location in a defile and the number of large boulders in evidence, I reckon it would have taken about ten minutes to close the road in an emergency. Pam and I tried to make ourselves invisible and slipped through.
Half an hour later, we decided that the Rugova Gorge was further than the “five minutes up the road” we had been told back in town. We returned to town for lunch and made up our minds to try again by taxi in the afternoon.
I’m glad we did. We paid 30 euros for a 30 kms trip and the driver spoke excellent English and was prepared to stop anywhere we wanted for photos. We were with him for two hours and he got a good tip!
Day 5 - Our train back to Pristina was at 1210 – the same loco but with just the four Austrian coaches on this occasion. We had loved our time in Peja and Pristina now seemed big, busy and hot. It seemed that most of its half million inhabitants were walking on the boulevard that afternoon and their kids were in the fountains.
That evening we ate at one of the boulevard’s pavement restaurants (excellent value) and watched the fountains change colour as night fell. By now the more intelligent children had worked out that, if you put your foot on one of the nozzles, you could make the water come out sideways and soak the onlookers. It was hard to believe that these happy, carefree people had been up to their necks in a bloody civil war just a few short years ago.
Day 6 - Having been forced to wait for most of the day for the train to Peja, the one to Skopje was the opposite. It departed at 0710 and we quickly found that, in spite of what the timetable says, the train doesn’t actually go all the way to Skopje but only to Hani i Elezit at the Macedonain border. Our handwritten tickets confirmed this. Rail fares are ridiculously cheap and so, when I was asked whether I also qualified for a senior citizen’s discount, I couldn’t believe my luck. 2.50 euros for a two hour train ride was good value. The train was hauled by another Nohab and comprised just two Swedish coaches of the type very familiar from my Grand Arctic tour leading days in the 80s.
At the border a one coach train was waiting – a very scruffy former Yugoslav coach and a typically standard Yugoslav diesel loco. These first impressions of Macedonia are misleading. The country outside the railway fence is clean and very forward looking but the railway is just plain “scruffy” and in urgent need of some investment.
Skopje station is an old barn of a place and, like other similar stations we had previously encountered in Serbia, the escalators don’t work.
We needed some Macedonian denars (their unit of currency) and found an exchange bureau in the main booking hall. It’s useful to mention now in view of what happened a couple of days later that all the signs in Macedonia use the Cyrillic as opposed to Latin letters. Even so an exchange bureau was fairly easy to find and so was a taxi. Once again, the price was on the high side and this confirmed my general rule of thumb (already established in Romania) that taxis from station to hotel are twice the price of the journey from hotel to station (because hotels select their taxis carefully).
Once outside the station, my opinion of Macedonia rose several hundred per cent. Skopje is a beautiful city. It was destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 and largely rebuilt in neo-classical style. Indeed the rebuilding is still ongoing and it seems that no expense is spared when it comes to beautiful bronze statues, fountains, bridges, public buildings and so on. I immediately added it to my very short list of beautiful Eastern European cities.
Not everybody agrees of course and there are those who will complain that, because none of the buildings are genuinely old, the whole business is rather kitsch. This may be true but the results are certainly more pleasing to the eye than a lot of cities I could mention.
One curiosity which perhaps follows the same trend is that urban transport is provided by a fleet of 200 very smart red double decker buses (made in China).
It was even hotter in Skopje (35 degrees) and I was glad that we had chosen to run the tour a month earlier than our visit. The city centre (Macedonia Square with its obligatory couple of statues and a fountain), is less than ten minutes walk from the hotel and, across the pedestrian river bridge from the square and past more statues and fountains is the old city with its bazaar. We ate that evening in an open air restaurant under a huge tree.
Day 7 - In the morning Tomislav, the manager, showed us around his hotel, a typical but very pleasant Holiday Inn where we found the staff very obliging. We then spent the whole day exploring the city which was a pleasant experience apart from the heat. We followed one of the walks in the guide book but quickly got lost in the maze of the bazaar – not that it mattered because every alleyway downhill eventually brings you back to the river bridge. That evening we ate at a restaurant on the river bank – there are plenty from which to choose.
Day 8 - After a morning sightseeing, we headed back to the station for the train to Bitola. The woman at the booking office spoke perfect English. Did I want a return? “Yes please.” She then told me that departure was at 1430 which I already knew and that it went from platform 6 (her exact words). This was different from the train indicator but, well, this is the Macedonian Railway.
So up the broken escalators we went with our suitcases to platform 6. There was no sign of a train except the one standing at platform 3. After ten minutes or so I became uneasy and asked a member of rail staff for the train to Bitola. He pointed to the one at platform 3. Down the broken escalators and up another set, also broken, to platform 3 where we climbed aboard just before departure.
The diesel multiple unit was old and hot. About two thirds of the windows were stuck closed, a much smaller number stuck open and a tiny fraction actually worked.
We left on time at 1430 and were due to arrive in Bitola at 1800. The conductor came round to check tickets and it was only then that I realised I had bought a couple of return bus tickets for the 1430 bus to Bitola from bus stop number 6. There was no alternative but to pay again – fortunately this wasn’t too expensive and it occurred to me that this was nobody’s fault except mine for not understanding any of the Cyrillic signs at the rail station (which happens also to be the bus station). I made a note not to do this with a group watching!
Meanwhile the train had started to climb. Macedonia is a very mountainous country and this particular journey was exceptionally scenic. Unfortunately, the climb didn’t seem to be doing our old diesel multiple unit much good and eventually we stopped. Something had presumably overheated but there was no steam so maybe it was engine or transmission oil. Whatever it was, we proceeded in increasingly shorter bursts until we reached the tiny station of Bogomila where the unit finally expired.
Word got around that we must now wait until the next train from Skopje which was due three hours after ours. A middle aged lady in our coach who had all the demeanour of a local councillor or member of Macedonia’s equivalent of the W.I. came over to Pam and me and apologised.
“I’m ashamed,” she said. “It happens every day. They should do something about it. I’ll write to them.”
The rest of the passengers seemed resigned to their fate and got off the train to sit on the ground in the shade. Most availed themselves of a rather dubious looking drinking fountain. I was tempted because my bottle of mineral water was hot but then thought better of it.
Eventually the next train arrived and there was much discussion between the train crews over what to do next. The solution was to run the other train past ours and then reverse it back onto our train. It now became apparent that the “multiple” bit of our kit wasn’t working either because, with much hooting of horns between drivers, we set off with our driver sitting in what now had become the middle cab and driving his unit from there.
We made good time from here and arrived at Bitola exactly three hours late at 2100. Returning passengers were still waiting patiently and I noticed that the crews uncoupled the two units so that our faulty unit would now go back to Skopje where it would arrive, all being well, sometime after midnight. No doubt with the cooler evening temperature and a downhill run, this would be a fair bet.
We took a taxi to the Hotel Millenium which is situated in a busy traffic-free main street with wall to wall pavement cafés.
Getting into the hotel involved negotiating several parked tables but, once inside, it was like many small town hotels – a little dated in appearance but clean and comfortable. We had a nice meal here and, at 10 o’clock in the evening were the only customers.
Day 9 - There was little time to spare after the customary tour of the hotel but we did manage a quick circuit of the town on foot and a visit to the supermarket for provisions for lunch.
The train back to Skopje was at 1245 and turned out to be the same faulty train although, on this occasion, it behaved OK. The return journey was uneventful apart from the miserable man in the green shirt who insisted on closing the windows and the rest of the passengers who insisted on having them open. They won as there were more of them. Then there was the very respectable looking woman who was caught by the plain clothes ticket inspector for travelling without a ticket. Another man sitting nearby paid her fare and her fine and, as far as I am aware, they were not known to each other.
Day 10 - We had arranged a car to take us to Ohrid (the group will use a train for part of the journey and then a private bus). The driver turned up dead on time at 1000 – he was from Ohrid and was very pleased that we were visiting his town. He wanted to know what we thought of Skopje and we told him that we thought it was beautiful. He replied that if the government spent more on roads and less on statues in Skopje, we would be getting to Ohrid much quicker. I ventured to suggest that the roads were good compared with the trains and very quickly he changed the subject to Manchester United. He wanted to know what team I supported and, when I apologetically said that I supported Bury “but you won’t have heard of them,” he was very quick to mention that he knew all about “Bewry” as they were relegated at the end of last season. There wasn’t much he didn’t know about English football.
We reached Ohrid before lunch and our car took us to our hotel on the lakeside – the Millenium Palace. The view across the lake to Albania was stunning, if a little hazy in the heat. It turned out that this was to be a public holiday weekend so Ohrid, a favourite resort for Macedonians, would be busy.
We had a light lunch at the hotel and then walked along the lake to the town centre – about fifteen minutes. If we had wanted, we could have had our choice of numerous offers of boat trips but we chose instead to explore the many alleyways in the old part of town and to sip iced tea at a pavement café. Ohrid was nice – the kind of place for switching off and relaxing.
The hotel had a nice outdoor section to its restaurant and that’s where we had our evening meal.
Day 11 - We had planned a free day here and so, after a leisurely breakfast, set off to walk along the lake in the opposite direction from the town. Here we found a pleasant marina with a number of expensive looking craft. It was also the home of the police HQ and they too had a number of boats – Albania is just across the water so no doubt the police here undertake border patrols.
Further on were a number of what we might call at home “beach cafés” and a large partly built complex which looked as though it might eventually become a large hotel or block of luxury apartments.
After lunch we headed back towards the town centre but the public holiday was making itself felt and our sleepy little lakeside resort had turned into Windermere on August Bank Holiday.
I also had a little work to do. Tomorrow we would go over the border into Albania and, when we arrived, we would need to buy some rail tickets. So I needed some Albanian money. We had found an exchange bureau on the previous afternoon and I had taken the precaution of making sure it was open on a Saturday and that he could provide Albanian money. I now exchanged my spare denars into Albanian lekke at a rate of 2 lekke for 1 denar. This was just too convenient to be true and, sure enough, research after the trip showed it to be an approximation – in his favour of course.
Day 12 - The nearest Albanian rail station to Ohrid is Librazhd and this was the day which caused me most apprehension. The only train of the day is at 1155. What happens if the car I had booked doesn’t turn up? What if there’s a huge queue and delay at the frontier? What if they ask all kinds of questions I can’t answer to their satisfaction? Albania was, after all, the last country in Europe to remain Communist and, in those days, it was very much a no-go area. Perhaps old habits die hard.
Our car turned up on time at 0830 and the driver assured me I had nothing to worry about. The train doesn’t go until 1155 and the road journey to Librazhd only takes two hours.
We set off and soon found ourselves on a climbing road. Although Albania is on the opposite side of the lake to Ohrid, the actual border crossing on the road is at the top of a mountain pass. The driver said he would do the talking, took our passports and disappeared. Minutes later he was back and we were on our way again.
Passing from one country to another provides the same culture shock as I experienced when using the land crossing between USA and Mexico. On the one side were the neat little buildings and nicely tended fields of Macedonia. On the other were children begging at the roadside, rusty abandoned cars and pickups and peasants with their donkeys in the fields. Fly tipping appeared to be a way of life.
Yet beyond this scruffy foreground, the scenery was magnificent and wide panoramic views opened up before us as we set off down the mountain pass.
There had once been an extension of the railway beyond Librazhd toward the Macedonian border though not into Macedonia itself and the Albanian railways have always been totally isolated from the rest of Europe. We soon saw signs of this line with numerous viaducts and tunnels sharing the same valley as our road. All the viaducts were constructed of ugly concrete and our driver explained that the line had been built quite late on in Communist days. It was clearly no longer in use although the track was still in situ.
We reached Librazhd around 1030 when our driver confessed he had no idea where the station was. He asked but the locals didn’t know either – nobody travels by train (we later found out why!).
Eventually somebody pointed to the road out of town and we followed it for a short distance up the hill. Sure enough, tucked away down a little unpaved track on the left and hidden behind several other buildings was a small station and a few overgrown tracks. There was no sign of life but the rails looked as though they had seen a train in the not too distant past. This must be it.
We said our farewell and thanks to our driver and he was off back to civilisation, leaving us to our fate. There was no point in standing at the station for over an hour and so we dragged our suitcases back up to the road. We were in luck – right opposite was a small and quite respectable looking café.
During a rather pleasant cappuccino we were approached by a local girl of student age. Where were we going? We explained that we would be catching the train to Tirana.
“I don’t know if it’s running. It hasn’t run for several days – something wrong with the track.”
Another note in the book – “Don’t let coach disappear until train has turned up.”
“Anyway, I’m a student in Tirana and must go today and, if the train doesn’t come, I will drive you there.”
This was the kind of thoughtfulness we met throughout our trip and, whatever you might think about the places themselves and their infrastructure, you couldn’t fault the generosity of the people.
We needn’t have worried. No sooner had the offer been made than we heard the train arrive. Our new friend insisted on coming with us to the station to make sure we were OK and, as I was curious to see the train itself, we quickly paid our bill and left.
The train consisted of a couple of second class former Deutsche Bahn (former East German) regional coaches still in their red livery and covered in graffiti. Most windows were either badly cracked or shattered like old car windscreens but, in fairness, the seats and upholstery were in good condition. The loco was built in what is now the Czech Republic and appeared to be of a standard design as we saw many others whilst in Albania.
The student explained to one of the lady conductors that we wanted tickets to Tirana and she duly wrote them out- the equivalent of £1.47 for a five hours journey. She promised to look after us and the student wished us a pleasant journey and disappeared.
The train departed dead on time at 1155. There were no more than half a dozen passengers and the train crew consisted of two on the loco, two lady conductors and a policeman. We found that all Albanian trains had a policeman as part of the crew. Was this a relic of the past too? His main job was to stop children leaning too far out of the window and their parents putting their feet on the seats. So that’s why the seats were clean. Presumably there was no such rule about not breaking windows!
Once again the scenery was wonderful as we wound our way down to the lower lying industrial town of Elbasan. The train slowed to a crawl as we scattered a mass of humanity that had set up market stalls on the line – it could easily have been India.
We picked up a large number of passengers here, all bound for Durres. We hadn’t appreciated before now that the reason there was no through traffic apart from us was that Elbasan is relatively close to Tirana and everybody goes by bus. Meanwhile the train spends four hours going down to the coast at Durres and then back inland again to Tirana.
The last hour between Durres and Tirana is partly urban and there’s no doubt that the best part of the whole journey was the first part. Nor had the heat abated and so we were glad to reach Tirana about twenty minutes late.
The taxi rank was across the road from the station and, amazingly, none of the drivers seemed to know where the hotel was. Could this be another scam? I wanted to say, “Come on, stop messing about” but realised my Albanian wasn’t up to it. I did manage to show them the name of the hotel, Doro City, on a map and, as it is a big hotel, I was sure that would do the trick. Eventually, one driver radioed his HQ and was given instructions. I still haven’t worked out what all that was about as the hotel turned out to be no more than a kilometre straight down the road and we walked it easily on the following day.
Once again, we were made most welcome at the hotel and had a nice meal in their restaurant that evening.
Day 13 - This is the day which we decided to cut out of the published itinerary for reasons which will become apparent.
Our plan was to visit the Roman amphitheatre at Durres and we were due to catch a train in the early afternoon. This would give us a free morning to explore Tirana.
The first snag was how to cross the road. They don’t seem to believe in pedestrian crossings or road markings of any kind and, even if they did, it is doubtful whether Tirana’s drivers would take any notice. It’s a great free-for-all and pedestrians take their chances with the rest.
Exploring Tirana was therefore not the most pleasant of experiences and the next point was that there didn’t seem much worth exploring. We asked at the hotel and were told that the only interesting parts were not within walking distance. We did manage to find an outdoor café with a rather nice garden and a fountain and I took my one and only photo of Tirana. I said to Pam that, if we published it in the brochure, we would be accused of misleading advertising.
We walked to the station for the afternoon train to Durres. This time the two coaches were ex Italian main line (12 compartment side corridor), again still in original livery. In fact all the Albanian trains we saw were either German or Italian and their fleet is remarkably standardised.
On this journey we were befriended by a young mother with a four year old son who had been to the swimming pool in Tirana and were now on their way home to Durres. She spoke good English and spent the journey telling us about life in Albania and how many people had emigrated across the water to Italy to find work. She seemed very protective of her son, especially whenever there were single men around and seemed to be glad that we were there. I wondered if there was a child trafficking problem but didn’t ask. When we got to Durres, she gladly walked us to the Roman amphitheatre but it was a great disappointment, only partially excavated.
We caught the last train back to Tirana at 1800 – they don’t run after darkness but we don’t know whether there is any significance in this.
Thinking that we ought to eat out tonight so that I would be able to recommend at least one other place apart from the hotel, we ran the gauntlet of the mad traffic once more but couldn’t find any other restaurant nearby – only bars and the occasional fast food outlet.
Returning once more to the hotel, we decided to cut out this day from the itinerary and to go half board in Tirana as we would be forced to eat in the hotel anyway!
Day 14 - Our last day and the taxi drivers had one more scam in store for us. Having asked the hotel reception to call us a taxi to the airport, the receptionist explained that we could pay a fixed charge to him when we would get a receipt. I don’t doubt the integrity of the receptionist and, in any case, we had seen this service mentioned in hotel literature.
We paid up and were told to wait by the hotel main front door. Now for the scam!
Another opportunist taxi sits up the road and waits for victims to emerge, then drives to the door, cheerily shouts “Airport?” and makes out that he is the booked taxi. I was slightly suspicious and so mentioned that I had paid the hotel.
“Yes,” he replied and so we got in. When we got to the airport, he required payment. I explained again that we had paid the hotel and he became angry. Meanwhile our luggage was locked in his boot. This was one we simply weren’t going to win. I did write to the hotel on my return and suggested that their drivers should be asked to come into the hotel and introduce themselves. I had an extremely polite reply with an assurance that this would be discussed at a meeting but I’m not holding my breath!
So there it was. The holiday had a few ups and downs and I certainly wouldn’t have liked to have taken a group without a dummy run first. Having said that, we were fending for ourselves, especially where transfers were concerned whereas the group will have transfers laid on. The group will also have the benefit of English speaking local guides for excursions.
Did we enjoy it? Yes, most certainly. It was an opportunity to visit three countries, two of which are not usually available to us. The hotels were all great, the food was good, the scenery perfect and the people exceptionally friendly and helpful. If there was a “but” it was simply that their infrastructure still needs a lot of investment and this is especially true of the railways. If you can’t cope with anything less perfect than Switzerland, please don’t book for this tour. If on the other hand, you have a sense of adventure and, like me, you enjoy finding out what other places are really like, I look forward to your company.
I see from the Daily Telegraph that it is intended to run this trip again next year. In order to accommodate day 13 I suggest that the train trip is broken at Durres and two nights spent at the Adriatik hotel in Durres. This hotel is well up to Ffestiniog Travel standards and Durres is a far more pleasant place to stay than dusty Tirana. The hotel has outside pools and all rooms are supposed to overlook the sea although ours was on the side of the hotel with the sea just visible.
Eating in Durres is no problem and I would recommend the Italian restaurant on the pier. These are several fast food outlets (Albanian style!) on the strip leading south to the NATO base and we enjoyed a steak, chips and beer which cost very little. Several hotels have restaurants overlooking the sea.
Day 13 can then consist of a visit to the archaeological site and a trip to Tirana. Little more than two hours is enough time to visit the new cathedral, the old mosque the convention centre (opened by George Bush I seen to recall) and have lunch on the steps of the Opera House in the main square before returning. I would suggest the 9:45 train to Tirena but return by coach. In both Durres and Tirana the rail and coach stations are together.
If it were possible to accommodate another day I would suggest taking the 7:15 train from Durres to Vlore arriving 11:55 with one train change. Then a coach to Saranda stopping for a coffee break at the pier restaurant in Himara. The coast south of Vlore is very scenic. There are several good hotels in Saranda with views across to Corfu. The final day would then be a visit to Butrint if time permits and then the ferry across to Corfu and a flight home.