A trip to Albania and a ride on a train with no glass in its windows
1913 Treaty of London
I must admit that before we visited Albania in early September 2019, I knew little of its history and I had certainly never heard of the London conference of 1913 or the treaty that resulted from it. Nevertheless, I soon learned that this agreement, signed on the eve of the First World War, not only defined Albania as we now know it, but had an influence on politics in the wider region that continues to this day.
The borders of modern Albania were fixed by the agreement signed between the six great powers of the day (France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the UK) and the two sides in the recently-ended First Balkan War: the victorious Balkan league and the defeated Ottoman Empire.
The treaty was actually a messy compromise that left a lot of ethnic Albanians outside the newly-created country. For much of the 20th Century they were citizens of Yugoslavia, but in the late 1990s the breakup of that country saw them become part of North Macedonia, Montenegro and, with particularly disastrous consequences, Kosovo / Serbia.
Our trip began in Tirana and after visits to Durres and Kruja, we went north across the border into Kosovo. In Prizren we visited the headquarters of the old Albanian League before heading across to the newest capital city in Europe: Prishtina. We then headed south by train for a stay in Skopje, capital of newly re-named North Macedonia, before travelling to wonderful Lake Ohrid and finally returning to Tirana via Elbasan.
We flew to Albania on British Airways direct from Gatwick, landing around noon on a Friday. The airport was not exactly modern, but it was compact and functional enough; we were through immigration in no time.
Our first pleasant surprise was the friendly man in the Bureau De Change who was advising people not to change too much money as rates were much better in town. He was the first, but certainly not the last, local who seemed to go out of their way to make us welcome. We changed 40 pounds and got just under 5000 Lek in return. (rate around 130 lek to £).
As we walked outside our second surprise was the heat: It was 30 degrees and sunny. The forecast for the following week was for much of the same. Our taxi driver for the 15km drive into town didn’t speak much English but managed to confirm that this year was unusually hot and dry.
We checked into our hotel and then set off walking the 4km or so into the city centre. It was a pleasant stroll along a tree-lined street running parallel to the Lana River.
All the greenery was another surprise; given Albania’s history of communist dictatorship, we had expected more concrete but here were tree-lined boulevards (remnants of Italian influence perhaps) and a beautful view of mountains in the distance.
The 50 minute walk took us to the centre point of the city: Skanderbeg square. It was named for the 15th century national hero of Albania, George Skanderbeg, and there was an equestrian statue of him in the middle of it.
The square was probably more of what we had been expecting from Tirana. Standing there surrounded by 1950s buildings such as the Opera, the old National Hotel and the National Museum of History with its mosaic of “happy” workers, it was just possible to imagine the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha that existed here between 1945 and 1990.
Yet, there was a lot of colour here too. People were lounging around on what looked like over-sized multicolured sofas. In the surrounding streets there was little that was drab or dull. As well as the many kiosks, shiny bars and cafes, a lot of the public and private buildings had been painted in bright colours and the streetscape was broken up by quirky art works and small paintings.
We continued with a brief saunter around the centre. We visited the inside of the Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral (opened in 2012) and the outside of 19th Century Et’hem Bej mosque (closed for renovation work).
We had also good look around the central market, impressively reconstructed a few years ago, and the almost brand new Toptani shopping centre: a trendy outdoor mall that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Los Angeles or London.
We popped into a café for a beer and found the service was friendly and the prices were cheap. It was possible to eat and drink for a third or a half of what you would pay in the UK. There was definitely a nice buzz in the air too: a lot of people were out in the bars and restaurants, they seemed relaxed with each other and glad to see tourists.
We continued to walk around into the early evening. The place lit up well and the result wasn’t unattractive. We found a place for a meal of grilled meat and salad and then on the way back to the hotel bought some provisions for breakfast from one of the many Italian Conad supermarkets that we saw dotted around the city.
All in all, our first impression of Tirana and Albania was extremely positive.
The next morning saw us heading to Durres: Albania’s main port and second city. It was only about 35km from Tirana and there were buses scheduled every 30 minutes throughout the day.
We took a taxi, 400 Lek on the meter, from outside the hotel to the Dogana bus station. Tirana didn’t have a single long distance bus station; instead it had a series of open bus parking lots on the outskirts. The Dogana was the one to use if you were heading to the south of the country or, like us, to Durres.
The Dogana was chaotic. There were no loading bays; just a mixture of minibuses and larger coaches lined up randomly. All of them had little destination signs in the windscreens and as we walked past their conductors shouted the destinations across to us; at the same time taxi drivers approached us asking where we were going and tried to persuade us we would be better off in a cab.
We eventually located a sign that said Durres on the front of one of the larger buses. The bus was empty but the driver motioned us on and indicated we would be able to pay later. We took a seat behind him. The bus was pretty old and had obviously seen better days. Its better days had probably been in Spain because the writing inside was almost exclusively in Spanish.
Just before 10am the driver started the engine and a conductor appeared from nowhere, jumped on and then, as the bus left the lot and maneuvered around the giant Dogana roundabout, he began to collect fares. We paid 230 Lek each but received no ticket in return.
We drove out along a dusty dual carriageway. It was a pretty dull trip and we never really left the urban sprawl. There were lots of little factories, shopping centres and international motor dealerships along the road but we could have been anywhere in Southern Europe. Perhaps only the frequent petrol stations belonging to Albania’s largest oil company, Kastrati, and the giant advertisements for Elbar beer gave any clue to where we were.
40 minutes later we pulled into a little square opposite the railway station in Durres. The main terminal for ferries to Italy was next to the station and in the background we could see one of the huge ships waiting to leave. The whole station square was filled with travel agencies competing to offer the best deals on buses around the region and ferries across the Adriatic to the various ports in Italy.
Durres has had quite a history. It boomed during Roman times and for time afterwards during the Ventian period. It was then pretty much a backwater in the Ottoman period but then thrived again in the 20th century as Italian influence on the country grew once more.
We walked from the railway station through streets of shops bustling with Saturday morning shoppers and eventually came to the great mosque and the city hall. We paused for a while and then continued on to the Roman amphitheatre. Hidden just beyond the port, the theatre was built in the 2nd century AD and used for over 200 years as a performance location. It is the largest amphitheatre on the Balkan Peninsula.
The beach was a few minutes walk on from the theatre. We strolled along the promenade for a bit and then stopped for a coffee at a modern, attractive restaurant at the end of the pier. Albanians, including many ethnic Albanians from Kosovo come to Durrës for its beaches. Even though we were close to the end of the season, there were still plenty of people relaxing on the sand and in the water swimming.
We walked further along the shoreline and eventually found the Aragosta restaurant for lunch. We had a fantastic meal of freshly caught sardines, octopus, squid and sea bass. It was all washed down with some very dry Cobo wine from a local vineyard.
After lunch, we walked around again, catching a little more of the “end of season” seaside atmosphere, before finally heading back towards the railway station.
The Train Back
Albania’s rail system is in such a poor state that it has become almost a perverse kind of tourist attraction. Some guide books actually recommend visiting Durres station just to photograph its particularly decrepit trains.
We were going to go one better; we were going to ride the train back towards Tirana.
The station sits at the centre of the tiny Albanian rail network. The system was only opened after WW2 and was designed to distribute incoming ferry passengers and freight around the country. Today, lines still fan out in three directions: north to Skroder; south to Elsaban and east towards Tirana. Yet on all three lines there are only about 2 or 3 trains a day and they are painfully slow; in all cases buses are much faster. The line we were about to travel on didn’t even reach Tirana any more; it was truncated a few years ago more than 10km short of the capital at Kashar.
The station, like the railway itself, was opened in 1949 and consisted of a large glass-fronted building and a single island platform. The building was equipped with several rows of seating and curiously it had a poster of a British Rail Inter City 125 train on one of the walls. The station no longer had a working ticket office but there was a café which was busy catering to passengers departing on buses from the square opposite.
We had arrived in good time for the 16:00 train but we found the station building almost deserted. There was one man sitting at the entrance to the platform. He looked as he would be performing the function of ticket collector but when we said the word “Kashar” he simply nodded and waved us onto the platform. Out on the platform we seemed to be the only passengers. There were two or three other people but they were obviously staff. One of them seemed quite excited that were getting the train, I said Kashar and he replied excitedly “yes, Kashar, Kashar”. Apparently Albanian Railways still employ around 1,000 people.
At about 15:55 the train came in from Elsaban. It consisted of a Czech diesel locomotive hauling two elderly second-hand German coaches both of which were covered in graffiti. Several people got off and the employees on the platform got to work helping to detach the engine and then couple it to the other end.
We jumped on. I walked through the train and counted a total of eight people who I presumed must have begun their journeys in Elsaban and were now heading for Kashar. As I walked through the train I also noticed that almost every window in the whole train was either broken or missing completely.
We settled in a compartment that had 6 seats off a side corridor and no glass in the windows on either side. After a wait of about 10 minutes we set off but we soon stopped again at a station on the outskirts of the town. To my surprise about twenty people got on. Soon after we resumed our journey, a lady came round and asked for 150 Lek. She wasn’t in any uniform but we paid her anyway. We got no ticket in return.
As the train gathered speed, we were inundated with fresh air. The noise of the horn constantly blaring could also be heard through the open window. It was quite bizarre but it was not an unpleasant way to travel. The only danger was when the train passed close to the edge of cornfields and we had to shift our heads from the open window to avoid being hit by the overgrown plants.
It took us about 45 minutes to reach Kashar. The train pulled up at a lonely platform with a small hut-like station at the end of it. Everyone got out and most people seemed to quickly disappear into the village to the side of the tracks. Almost alone, we headed off along the road that we knew would take us back to a bus stop on the main Durres to Tirana highway.
As we were walking, a man on a bike appeared, stopped, stepped off his cycle and asked if we needed help. We assured him we were okay but he didn’t seem convinced and he didn’t get on the bike again until he had walked us to the bus stop; another example of the friendliness of the local people and their eagerness to help.
We waited at the bus stop with a man who was seeing off cousin and he told us of his life working in Malaysia. After about 10 minutes the bus turned up. 40 lek and a ride of 30 minutes got us all the way back to Skandarberg square.
We found an excellent Italian sandwich place on the way back to the hotel and took one of their creations back to the room.
My thoughts then turned to the next day’s trip and I made the unwelcome discovery that as it was a Sunday only 2 of the 4 buses for the 80km trip to Prizren in Kosovo would be running. We were faced with a choice between a 6am or 4pm departure. Neither were too attractive, so I began to look for other methods.
I got lucky and chanced on a website that matched travellers with local people who wanted to make a bit of money driving them around. A couple of emails later and I had managed to arrange a one way trip to Prizren at 9am for 70 Euros with a local lad called Ramiz. There was also a bonus as he had agreed to stop at the famous castle town of Kruja on the way.
It was a lot more expensive than the bus but it beat having to get up at 5am. Actually, it all sounded all a bit too good to be true and, as I drifted off to sleep, I started to wonder whether Ramiz would actually turn up or not.
I needn’t have worried. The next morning, just as we were checking out of the hotel, Ramiz came up to us and, smiling broadly, introduced himself. He then lead us out to his black Hyundai car and suggested we make ourselves comfortable in the back. He told us there were bottles of water in there if we needed them.
He explained that he was a physio-therapist during the week and he worked in a Tirana clinic. This was his day off and he often spent it earning extra cash, meeting tourists and practising his (already excellent) English. He told us he was 28 and had worked in the medical sector in Albania since leaving school.
We spent much of the journey in conversation with Ramiz and learned a lot about the history, politics, and culture of his country. We started off with the name: Shqipnia – “Land of the eagles”, which explained the Albanian flag with the black eagle on the red background. We actually managed to see a real eagle later on in the trip and we were also introduced to a symbolic painting which depicted a lion fighting a zebra with an eagle rising above both of them.
We continued our chat with his views on the Albanian medical system. He told us that Albania makes a lot of money from foreigners coming in for treatments, especially plastic surgery and IVF, but the poor people in the country struggle to get access to decent health care.
As we left Tirana behind we started to pass several convoys of cars decorated with flowers. Ramiz told us that Sunday was a day for weddings in Albania and explained that people decorate the cars. We passed more and more of these convoys as our journey continued. One of them had a guy at the front leaning out with a big camera obviously videoing the whole thing.
From weddings we soon got onto the subject of religion and Ramiz told us that like about 70% of the country he was Muslim. Nevertheless, he explained that not everyone followed the faith as strictly in other countries. “Most of us eat port and drink alcohol” he told us. He was proud that, unlike the neighbouring former republics of Yugoslavia, Albania has never really had a big issue with religious divide. Ramiz told us that even mixed marriages are becoming more popular.
After about 50 minutes drive we turned off the main highway and climbed up a zigzagging road that took us to Kruja. Kruja is one of the most important historical cities of Albania, and is famous as the hometown of national hero George Skanderbeg, the great Albanian hero whose statue we had already seen back in Tirana. Ramiz dropped us near the Hotel Panorama and arranged to come back within an hour.
The Panorama was aptly named as it offered breathtaking views over the valley. The path to the old bazaar started at the hotel and we followed it. Although it is one of the most well preserved markets in the Balkans, it did look a bit touristy; there were places to buy carpets, clothes and textiles made by local artisans but most stalls seemed to be selling the normal tourist tat. We skipped browsing and went for a Turkish coffee instead.
Then we climbed to the old ruined castle area. The castle dates from 1100 to 1600 and apparently was where Skanderbeg fought against the Ottomans to save Albania. Nearby we visited the excellent Ethnographic Museum and wandered around rooms in a beautiful old house dating from the 19th century that originally belonged to the Ottoman family.
After our hour was up we found Ramiz again. Now he drove us out of Kruja and eventually back onto the main highway heading to the border with Kosovo.
We got on to the subject of cars and he told us that his own car, like many in the country, was bought second hand outside Albania. His Hyundai had been bought in Germany and he and his brother had driven it all the way back. Amazingly, he explained, it was much cheaper to buy a car second hand this way.
As we started to drive up the brand new motorway to the Kosovan border, we started to learn all about the history of oligarchy and bribery in the country. We listened to various stories including one about the Turkish Company that built the very road we were travelling on and the allegations of corruption against the politicians who authorised it.
Soon, we entered the longest tunnel in the whole country (5.6km) and shortly after emerging on the other side we came to the border with Kosovo.