Football: Albania, November 2018

Albania… why are you going there? You would think my nearest and dearest would have caught on by now.

An early finish on Friday lunchtime allowed a few drinks in my Newport local before fellow County pal Donna gave me a lift to Cardiff for Wales’ home game with Denmark, with a win seeing us through to the Nations League playoffs. Unfortunately this didn’t materialise and the Danes provided an experienced display in a 2-1 win.

A lot has happened since that home game but I do remember being bitterly disappointed at our ability to create chances, at least until someone pointed out to me we had EIGHTEEN attempts on goal. Afterwards I may have had an extra cider or two than I anticipated to compensate, the up side being that before I knew it my friend Peter and I were at Gatwick airport, boarding the Saturday afternoon, 2h40m British Airways flight to Tirana. Good value for £150 return.

By the time we had arrived in Albania’s only international airport, night time had already set in. Perfect timing to pick up our hire car knowing that the roads and the local drivers may turn our 60 minute journey into somewhat of an assault course!

The main road between Tirana and Elbasan will soon be easy-peasy. As it is now however, there’s a 6km stretch of the motorway yet to be completed that forces you to meander along the mountainside. Anyone catching one of the 20+ coaches on match day would be in for a real treat!! Arriving shortly before 11pm we checked in to our hotel, a four-star five minutes from the ground. I’m reliably informed that our accommodation was Elbasan’s first luxury hotel. Perhaps not what we would expect back home but perfectly adequate and £20pppn. As we’ve had to visit outside of peak season there was no chance of popping in to the attached pizzeria, and the outside swimming pool wasn’t even considered during our stay.

Sunday

After a very basic breakfast we made our way in to the centre. We were surprised how quickly we reached the arena and had a walk around to the grandstand that’s was four to ten times smaller than many other international stadiums I have had the pleasure to visit. A little over ten minutes walk further to the centre we found ourselves at Elbasan castle and clock tower. These were a little underwhelming considering they often top the “things to do” lists I looked at beforehand. Inside the castle walls instead of a bustling market space I had expected it’s filled with a handful of places of worship, run down (derelict?) restaurants and small living spaces. We later found out that the two remaining towers make home to a nice cafe and garden, the other being a 5-star hotel. Chalk and cheese.

Walking back to the hotel along the main boulevard linking the castle to the ground we noticed several bars that would soon be rapidly running out of beer later in the week. I did have concerns about the suitability of boozers but they did indeed create a vibrant pre-match atmosphere during the game on Tuesday.

OK. Elbasan ticked off the list and it wasn’t even lunch time… back to the drawing board. With my travel buddy Pete and his forward-thinking-won’t-cost-you-a-kidney mobile data usage he – somehow – found a small church 25 minutes drive away. This time I was my turn to get behind the wheel, good practice for my New Year travels to Jordan, as the small, decaying Church of St. Nicholas resided remotely up a mountain, inaccessible by your average vehicle, let alone the invasions of Ottoman Turks and atheist communists who wouldn’t have found it as fascinating as we did, thus why it’s still standing today.

Regular readers will be aware that Churches and Museums rarely get my blood pumping, however this was a brilliant find. After a few minutes wallowing outside, an elderly resident at a neighbouring farmhouse came to meet us. The chap spoke absolutely zero English but within five minutes he had shouted his mate to (I can only assume) lob him the keys and let us take a look inside. We were greeted with paintings (frescoes) designed by famous Orthodox painter called Onufri. I was glad to have Pete explain the paintings to me that told the story of the New Testament. The cracks in the 500 year old walls only adding to the unique interior. I was really pleased Pete seemed chuffed about the visit as we took off the handbrake and rolled back down the mountain to the hotel.

Trying to avoid the blog being referenced on an upcoming episode of Songs of Praise, the day was a great start to the trip, so we shouldn’t have been too surprised to get back to the hotel only to be told we would have to leave the hotel to accommodate the Albanian football team. The cheek! Once the surprise and concerns were discussed we were happy to be transferred to the aforementioned 5 star hotel in the castle walls, only then to be told 30 minutes later that we were able to stay! As means of an apology the hotel staff offered us a free lunch, three courses with a tremendous portion of steak and chips.

The remainder of our first day consisted of a few hours siesta (it was a Sunday…) and a walk back in to the centre for a taste of the local beer. With a day in Tirana tomorrow we only had a sensible amount and planned our day in the capital. That, I’m going to bore you with now…

Monday

Pancakes and strawberry jam consumed at breakfast and unexpected sunshine, when I would usually be on the way to work. What a time to be alive.

The commute to Tirana didn’t seem half as bad in daylight and after only an hour although we were negotiating the Tirana side streets about as well as Theresa May has done with Brexit. My first thought of Tirana was that it was a cross of what I would expect a middle-eastern city to look like and an installment of the Assassins Creed video game. With a big sigh of relief we made it to our first port of call, the Dajti Express cable car system up to Mount Dajt. For only 6 quid each we were treated to a fifteen minute incline up some 1,040 metres above see level. As a forced cable-car enthusiast, following similar journeys in Beijing, Hong Kong and Tbilisi over the past 18 months, this was probably the longest, and made the vast amount of multi-storey buildings simply equate to a pixel or two on my substandard mobile phone camera. Even an Instagram filter won’t help the cause – I tried.

Before we made the trip back we bumped in to a family of Wrexham fans and discussed our upcoming second round FA Cup tie. That should be a great encounter but I was honest in saying I will Luis Suarez their hand off for a replay. The amount of Wrexham fans I’ve bumped in to must now be in the hundreds and I’ve always been welcomed in to conversation. Splendid. (Note: we were lucky to draw 0-0 and won 4-0 at the home replay, THEN went on to beat Primer League Leicester in the next round!)

A marginally better trip a few kilometers in to Tirana central, we parked the car (didn’t look AT ALL dodgy mind) and strolled to the most bazaar point of interest I’ve ever witnessed. The Pyramida, that often tops Tirana’s top attraction lists, is located on the main boulevard between the main piazza and Mother Theresa Square. This concrete and glass monstrosity was originally built to honor some communist geezer but when shit hit the fan in 1991 it was turned in to a convention centre, once being used as a base for NATO during the Balkans war. Since then they can’t decide whether it’s best to do something useful with it or demolish it. Whilst I had every intention of climbing up to the top after 10 feet I thought better of it, although was a bit envious to see a half dozen Welshmen complete the climb. Instead we bumped in to yet more people from North Wales, and this gang actually remembered me from a previous trip.

As luck would have it, the group we met were the same wonderful heroes who looked after me in Georgia after way too many beers. I remembered both going for wine in Tbilisi and falling up the escalator on the way to the ground, but less so my drunken conversations and them repeatedly making sure I didn’t get lost – I was very thankful!

Feeling rather sheepish after that we walked to the main square which was adorned in Christmas decorations, fairground rides and German-style market stalls mostly offering beer. It was a perfect time for lunch and the £3/400LEK spicy sausage and chips with a local beer consumed was a delight.

To complete our day in the capital city of Albania we marched to the park to see a collection of war graves before it became too dark. After a good half hour walk we arrived at the small gated area that had 40 or so gravestones remembering those who lost their life on Albanian soil during World War 2. I think there were only three people aged over 30. It certainly made me feel grateful I was here ‘on holiday’.

Leaving the park we were a lot closer to the car than we anticipated and it was only a short, but interesting wander around Mother Theresa square that separated us from the journey home as the sun set. That night we really did run out of things to do in Elbasan so eventually found an Italian restaurant willing to feed us some Ragu and Steak before stopping in one of the many bars offering a glass of wine (or 4), completely unaware that tomorrow would see every one of their tables full, staff unable to keep up with demand and a songs about players they probably haven’t heard of.

Tuesday

Matchday was upon us and again we were given the odious task of trying to find something to do around town before striking beer o clock. A sophisticated coffee at the cafe inside the castle walls was unsuccessful as they were preparing for a private function, one that probably involved a lot of beer and red shirts. So instead we started chatting to a group from Newcastle Emlyn as we headed back to the row of pubs we ended up last night, the “Coffee House” our pub of choice… and here I stayed from 11am to 30 minutes before kickoff! Good work Christopher!

Although I do have solid experience of staying in pubs for 9 hours, it certainly helped when after lunch the majority of the Welsh contingent arrived on buses from Tirana, including my life-long friend and County fan Donna arrived as Peter went back to the hotel for a siesta. It didn’t take too long at this point for the pub to start bursting in to song, aided immeasurably by a cocktail of… cocktails, and wine once I got fed up of the beer. By the time Peter returned we were hassled to start walking to the ground and we arrived minutes before the anthem sounded.

The game itself was really shit for want of a better word. It will go down in history as the game where Chris Gunter became Wales’ most capped player but little else has lasted long in the memory… perhaps two penalties we should have had, whilst the embarrassing Albanian match winning penalty was rather dubious even from the other side of the pitch, plus athletic track.

We said our goodbyes to Donna and miserably sat down to scoff a pizza before returning to the hotel, even meeting Tom Lockyer’s dad and brother did little to raise my mood. Thankfully as far as the trip went the best was yet to come!

Wednesday

The hotel breakfast room was a bit livelier today, populated with at least a few Swansea supporters, as we checked out. Today we would be heading to Berat, which as the crow flies didn’t seem to far away but considering the road system in Albania took a longer than anticipated two hours.

Certainly the number one thing to see in Berat is the castle that sits at the top of the cliff overlooking the houses built during the Ottoman Empire, and that was number one on our list once we settled in to our accommodation for the evening high up a hill outside of the city.

Worries about the road standards reaching Berat Castle lived up to expectations… more holes than a sponge… and after a wrong turn even had the opportunity to stage the first ever Albanian leg of the World Rally Championship! For added hassle we parked a wet, 10 minute walk outside the castle entrance when we could have parked right outside. Thankfully once we were inside it was worth the effort.

The 13th century citadel overlooks the entire city and River Osum and in it’s heyday contained up to twenty churches, most of which has now fallen foul to nature. We were rewarded with tremendous views over the City and scaling the ruins was interesting. Unlike any other castle I have visited (apart from Elbasan funnily enough) there we people who lived in the castle walls, and a wrong turn could well find you tripping over a chicken in a front garden! In one of the photos you can just about make out the remnants of a rainbow. Cute.

After our easier, yet still bumpy descent from the castle to the centre we parked up in the main square. It was pleasant to see in front of us a church and a mosque side by side as we walked along the main promenade before lunch in a decent restaurant mixing Italian and Albanian cuisine, the family business consisted of the son front of house whilst Mum was cooking the food… that reminds me I haven’t left that review I promised them… #hownot2keepreviewpromises…

Sun already setting, we returned to the hotel, had a plethora of dishes for tea and planned our itinerary for tomorrow.

Thursday

A great night sleep meant we hit the road to our final stopover in Sarande in good spirits. Sarande lies on the south-west coast a few miles from the island of Corfu, and is Albania’s most popular seaside tourist destination. We booked our room for the night in a hotel and spa that wouldn’t look out of place along the Costa Blanca and with that came the possibility of going in the sea which was something I was keen to do. In November. Unlikely?

First up though we had to get there, which was straight forward up until the point where we left the main motorway and climbed a mountain that seemed to never end. In fact it was some 300m incline.

An additional stop to the trip was an area that was called the blue eye, just a short 5 minute drive from the main road we traveled on. As we approached the area, that I’m sure was regarded as Albania’s most beautiful place, I became apprehensive as the nearby farm and stream did little to raise the pulses. However, I was pleasantly surprised when a path opened up to the area we were looking for. The Blue Eye is natural spring that pumps up so much water it creates a fast flowing stream running for miles. It is thought that the spring is at least 50 metres deep, but due to the pressure it has so far been impossible to measure how deep the hole actually is. If that was impressive the colour was on par. The blue and greens that emerge from the area that can be no wider than two metres in diameter was something difficult to catch ‘on film’.

The mostly flat, but still bumpy commute from here to Sarande was a lot less adventurous and we arrived at our 4* resort mid-afternoon. What I’m sure would be a packed out (and a LOT more expensive than 48 quid) hotel in the summer was somewhat of a ghost town. One of my defining memories of the trip was when I asked the receptionist if it was OK to go in the sea. The look of “are you having a laugh you daft twat” was impossible to hide as I walked jollily out back towards the grit and the waters edge. It was cold, and a little lonely before Peter came (mildly unimpressed to be seen with me) and took some photos while I was the polar opposite of The Little Mermaid. When is the next time I can say I’ve swam in the Albanian riviera a month before Christmas, or whenever for that matter.

A quick dry off and change and we set off to grab some dinner which would be our last proper meal before home. This was somewhat challenging considering 95% of the shops were shut because it was off-season but we finally managed somewhere on the pier that provided some really nice food watching the sun set, a tad disappointed that I had ordered pizza and chips.

Friday

The morning didn’t get off to the best of starts when we were told breakfast was in room with no tables, people or lights. We were a little pushed for time so saw the positive side, in that we could get going, making our five hour trip back up north, up-and-over the mountain towards the airport on the outskirts of Tirana.

And thank goodness we did! It was all going to plan when we stopped for breakfast (chicken and chips don’t judge) at a services but it we were only about a third of the journey through before we were escorted off the beaten track due to road works. As I have already mentioned, off the beaten track in Albania doesn’t mean a little detour. It would be easier riding a unicycle on the surface of Mars than some of the roads we had to endure for the middle third of our trip. I’m sure at one point I looked in a pothole so deep I seen a sign selling magma. Writing this some two months later it doesn’t seem like a big deal but there were points where us missing our flight was a genuine possibility.

Long story short. We made it to the airport and dropped the car off with enough time to spare to fulfil my allocation of cheap tobacco and an overpriced sarnie.

Thanks for reading, Chris x
#hownot2life