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…a land of extreme contrasts
The stern looks of the Albanian border official were still in our minds for a long time, when we already drove some kilometers into this country, which had been isolated for decades. Apart from the many warnings and advice, our first impression was somewhat clouded. There was garbage everywhere and on the first kilometers the country made a very untidy impression on us.

At the first crossings of bigger villages the strong presence of men made rather the impression that we were somewhere in the Orient. Chantal felt rather uncomfortable; she as a western woman with the many male faces and even more at the wheel of an off-road vehicle. The looks were correspondingly in this rural region, after all, here the women sit on the back seat of the cars.

The country was long shielded from everything by the communist ruler Hoxha and probably shaped his fellow countrymen accordingly. He claimed that he represented the right communism, built 700’000 bunkers to protect his people from evil invaders and left the population hanging on the famine cloth.

Today, in any case, this spat is over and we may cross the borders with Albania in peaceful intent. But, as already mentioned, it was a journey into the past for us, where many things still tick differently than we are used to in the western world. On the main roads cows or whole flocks of sheep run around. The shepherds with their donkeys are still omnipresent. In the fields in the lowlands, people are still busy working by hand and the agricultural machinery used reminds me of my childhood, when the plough was still a simple tool.

Apart from the cattle on the road, we experienced a Mercedes-Benz density never felt before like here in Albania. The star from Stuttgart is omnipresent and you hardly see anything else in rural areas. Only the gods know if everyone came here legally. And, it is driven as long as the engine runs, with or without windows. If the engine doesn’t turn anymore, this is not the end of the story; here all parts of the car are put aside next to the house, you never know, and Albania must be a real mecca for every fan of classic cars for all parts of this brand.

Due to the year we left out bigger detours into the mountains and were content with lower altitudes and headed directly for Tirana.
We reached the suburbs probably at the worst possible time; everything that somehow had wheels moved towards the centre and the traffic chaos was both sobering and enchanting. Where there would be three lanes, you’d be standing in a row of six and yet changing lanes from the far left to the far right, or vice versa, somehow always works. It is actually fantastic how such a chaos can work!

We did not reach the centre of Tirana! We didn’t feel like choking through this traffic jam anymore and soon we turned off, crossed some suburbs and found ourselves outside in rural surroundings again. The euphoria about the beautiful valley we reached was greater than the exact map study. The drive into the more and more lonely valley was wonderful and partly very challenging from the driving distance. At the beginning we did not suspect that it will finally go back the same way. With a donkey it would probably have been possible, but our four-wheeled vehicle was finally a little too wide.

The drive back was accordingly long and only late in the evening we reached a small bathing bay. Indeed, in different buildings light was burning, but not a soul could be seen. Thus, we prepared ourselves at the edge of the area for the night; maybe it is like in the orient where one is allowed to stay everywhere on public ground.
The surf of the sea lulled us into a deep sleep and nobody was interested in our presence.

Only the next day did we notice the open-hearted helpfulness of the people, although the language barriers were relatively high. Even a friendly waving or greeting caused much joy among many people. It is actually a pity that we could not enter into a closer relationship; we do not speak Albanian and they do not speak any of our powerful languages. A pity!

Since our jeep got very dirty during the trip to the side valley, we had the car cleaned at a car wash. For little money our jeep turned white again and we could enjoy a fine coffee in the bar next door, which is probably run by the mother. And as it is usual in Albania, the driver gets an Ouzo – of course offered by the house – in addition.

In the west, or rather the southwest of the country, a lot is being done for summer bathing tourism, old buildings are arriving and modern buildings are being built everywhere, which are probably no longer affordable for the local population. The buyers could be coming from further east; what was striking for us were the many vehicles with Russian license plates. A lot of luxury on one side, just across the road donkey carts and goat herders protect their herd on the outskirts of the village.

Our way led us again over a pass, from where we had a fantastic view over this barren landscape to the Adriatic Sea. Although we were almost blown off the mountain, the panoramic view was fantastic. Along the coast, the local people also try to get something from the tourist stream and with a lot of own initiative, something is done with simple means. Whether then the future bathing tourists will find their way through the garbage dump and building rubble to the beach, will soon be seen. Maybe we are simply too sensitive in this matter?

At the very bottom of the southwest, during our passage, the mandarin harvest was in full swing; everywhere, the fruits were diligently picked and driven to the village collection point, where they were loaded on huge articulated lorries. We could not quite guess how the fruits were then transported away, as the local roads were more bad than right and had hardly any space for these huge trucks.

We enjoyed a fine coffee in a local restaurant, bought some small things, so that we could use the local currency. The rest, a little less than one Swiss franc, we gave to the landlady. She was so surprised that she ran across the street, got a bag of mandarins and gave it to us with joy.

The Greek border was only a few kilometers away and our urge to go south for warmth was still unbroken.  But, in the short time we were allowed to spend in Albania, we suddenly found much joy in this country and the people there. The mountainous hinterland would surely still have a lot to offer and, we can go back sometime and enjoy the winding mountain valleys.

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