Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Adventures in Albania

My recent excursion to Albania could hardly have been more surprising. With warnings from Russian friends and colleagues to exercise extreme caution (amid preparations for our non-return), and memories of President Bush's recent timepiece-losing antics in the region fresh in our minds, we were prepared for an ordeal. Instead, we found a bustling, prosperous nation offering exquisite food, fabulous views, wonderfully warm and hospitable people, and virtually everything available for investment, with ample success fees to be shared between all.

Seriously, you want waterfront property? Shares in a Club Med? To build a power station? A conference center high in the mountains replete with deer & an indoor pool? A marina (only 12mm Euro)?, a boat-shaped house? It's all there- Albania is ripe for investment with upside for all.

Admittedly, some of this slightly particular viewpoint is due to our wonderful host Denis, a business school mate of mine, Deputy Minister in the Albanian Govt, and the CEO of Albinvest, the foreign investment arm of the Albanian Govt. He welcomed Ariel, Guri (without watch) & I to Albania with open arms, and took us travelling for four days throughout his wonderful country.

I suspect most of you reading this know as much about Albania as we did before we landed there, so to give a bit of background, Albania is a comparatively large Balkan country that's basically been treated like a hot potato over the last 3,000 years by the Romans, Greeks, Turks, Italians, and other assorted vacationing barbarians. Its prime coastal location sandwiched between Montenegro and Greece should have afforded it some great post-Colonial opportunities, but a crackpot dictator decided Communism was the way to go for most of the 20th Century, caving only in the mid-90's. His paranioa went so far as to declare that every Albanian peasant should have their own bunker, resulting in indestructible concrete Artoo-like mushrooms decorating the countryside pretty much everywhere you look.

Apart from the beautiful countryside (bunkers aside) and coastline, the exquisite food (take the best of Italian and Greek with a dash of Turkish), and the warm and friendly people, Albania seems to have a couple of odd ideosynchrasies. For example, they appear to have a passion for half-completed concrete structures (maybe a legacy of the bunkers), as well as ridiculous over-capitalisation in everything they construct (think a 4-story boat-shaped house, concrete castles in the middle of nowhere, and bars & restaurants in small villages that would not look out of place in Manhattan).

Our journey began in Tirana, and our first indication that we were on a path less travelled was that immigration were so surprised we were here for tourism that they gave us a discount on our visas. Upon leaving Mother Theresa airport (who knew she was Albanian?), we entered a world of benign chaos, where apparently the only vehicle permitted is a Mercedes, and Russian road rules apply, whether it's being forced off the road by a quasi-official convoy, or sitting in traffic for hours.

Denis met us at lunch, and we explored Tirana, the afternoon power outage cutting short a tour of Albinvest's premises. That evening, after another another heart-stopping meal (we were SO happy to drink reasonably-priced good wine), we explored the local nightlife... Until this point it had escaped my attention that Albania is a predominantly Muslim country, but a local girl's "I'm here with my cousin and can't leave without him, please don't cause problems" to one of our teams' amorous advances rapidly brought this point home. The rapid music shift from country line-dancing to greek circle-dancing to arabic belly-dancing music in another establishment was a gentle reminder that Albania isn't quite as culturally homogenous as Moscow.

The following morning we headed to the coast, our government saloon affording us the best police attention affordable. We spent the day eating, drinking, and meandering down the coastline, spending the evening staying under heavy guard at the President's summer dacha in the town of Vlore, hosted by one of Denis' gracious oligarch-like friends at his restaurant.

A beautiful sunrise and Communist-era dining experience later, our convoy took to the mountains, heavy cloud lending a mysterious medieval aura to the dramatic mountain vistas and hair-raising hairpin bends. Apparently Denis' friend was so influential he was able to break the Mercedes-only law of Albanian vehicle ownership (or at least possession). We visited a lovely hotel, had a delicious meal of local goat & other delicacies, and headed to the south coast (where Cam was thrilled to receive Greek GPRS access for his blackberry).

By early evening we had arrived in Berat, an ancient fortified town dominated by the castle in which people still live. We explored the castle (partially by braille in the fading light) but were disappointed that the frog we found living in the castle would not turn into a beautiful princess despite a piss, er, I mean a kiss.

The late-night rally back to Tirana left haunting images in my dreams as donkeys, small children, potholes large enough to swallow our car, and misplaced bunkers swept past in our headlights and reminded me of computer games in days gone by. Thankfully there was enough Raki (although not enough cities beginning with "E") to distract us.

After such a gastronomic, cultural, and entrepreneurial weekend, we collapsed onto the plane back to Moscow, with just one question remaining... What was that strange Chinese transistor thing in the back of Denis' car? I guess it's a question that will remain unanswered.

In the meantime, anyone who can rustle up a busload of unsuspecting & adventurous tourists who are willing to hit the mountains of Southern Albania, there's a success fee in it for both of us...

The photos, as always, are here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is a great blog!