Tour of Albania #3: The first night, the first switchback

The problem wasn’t that I was bare assed and bleeding, the problem was that it was midnight of my first hours in Tirana, Albania and I was locked out of the fortress like gate of my hotel with no one to let me in. I had just managed to neatly tear the seat out of my pants – denim dangling like 30’s pajamas. Oh well, I didn’t have any luggage or clothes anyway…time to hit the town…


The Llogara pass: switchback one

The second mistake I made that third day, other than eating rotted sheep’s brain for breakfast, was not refilling my water bottles at the crumbling stone village before the start of the big climb. As I approached the foot of the mountain I could clearly see the five massive switchbacks etched into the rock up to the Llogara pass. Each of these traverses were much the same in length and vertical climb (about 700 vertical feet each), but each, as it would turn out, would be different in light, climate, and landscape. The reward for the ascent would be views of the Greek island of Corfu and a hundred miles of gorgeous coastline. This was supposed to be the highlight of this long day of riding, if not the whole trip.

Llogara pass

It had been two more hours of tough climbing and high speed descents since lunch with Kirk in Hamara, and 6 hours since leaving Saranda via the valley of death. I was approaching the tiny village of Palase, exactly the spot where Julius Caesar began his march on Pompey for battle over two thousand years ago. There was no market in Palase, just one of those ubiquitous mountain springs that had been tapped near the road – crystal clear water perpetually gurgling out of rusty pipes into the dust, or on this occasion into jugs being filled by a weathered Albanian shepherd wearing dark clothes and a black beret in the heat. As I rode by I watched him hoist another plastic bottle with a faded Fanta label full of spring water into the leather saddle bags of his worn looking donkey.

albania 340 (Medium)

It was hot - I should have stopped and refilled – but the store was busy…

As the view opened up – I cast about, searching, I had not seen one in several minutes – but yes, there at the base of the mountain were several of them – bunkers.

Bunkers by the beach

In January of 1946, the People’s Republic of Albania proclaimed itself to the world, with Enver Hoxha as the “Supreme Comrade.” Shortly thereafter, starting in 1950 and for the 45 years through Hoxha’s death in 1985, Albania invested in a self-reliant defense policy in the form of bunkers – gray concrete and steel domes – more than 700,000 of them in total, and in the most random of places. These sturdy little mushrooms weigh in at about 10,000 lbs and pop up virtually everywhere in the country and are virtually indestructible: hence most of them remain in place despite serving no current purpose (one could argue whether they ever had a purpose other than to keep fear of the outside balanced with fear from the inside.) Far from amusing, however, was the cost – each one of these bunkers cost more to build than to feed, house, and cloth a family of four for a year.

bunker mushrooms

Originally closely allied with its iron curtain bedfellows, Albania under Hoxha gradually become more and more isolationist and insular, breaking ties with neighbor Yugoslavia in 1948, the USSR in 1961, dropping from the Warsaw pact in 1968, and then completing it secession by ending its last earthly diplomatic and financial tie – to China -  in 1978. It had already cut its spiritual ties – in 1967 – by declaring itself the world’s first atheist state and promptly either destroying or renovating all the churches and mosques: more often (and more practical) converting them to gymnasiums. From 1978 until the last gasp of communism in 1991 Albania was its own planet – no one and nothing came in, and no one and nothing went out. Factories foundered, infrastructure crumbled without supplies or spare parts, and banned prayers went unanswered as the communist system eventually ground to a halt leaving the nation underdeveloped and impoverished.

On our first day, after arriving in Tirana, I helped Kirk find a furgon (minibus) to Korça, and he made it safely there for his meetings. Meanwhile I spent a productive afternoon learning to drive “Albanian style” in Tirana during rush hour while trying to find the hotel that had been arranged for me by Kirk’s friends. I was pretty motivated since Lonely Planet’s GETTING AROUND: by Car section - in its totality - states only, “Our advice would be DON’T DO IT. Tirana’s roads, and drivers are insane.” A challenge indeed.

After 90 minutes of fruitless searching in lockstep traffic amongst unnamed streets, unmarked lanes, unworking traffic lights, and constant near accidents, I called Kirk’s friend Neraida who had made the arrangements for us.  She agreed to meet me a half our later in front the Mosque after she finished work to show me the way. Via email Neraida had provided a great deal of organized and useful information and had exuded a matronly protectiveness in her correspondence. I had assumed her affiliation with Kirk was library business, so I was somewhat shocked to discover that the woman talking to me on the cell phone as she climbed into my car in front if the Mosque in Skanderbeg square was not a frumpy 45 year old librarian, and instead was a vivacious 27 year old economist in a short dress and high heels who informed me she went by “Ada.”

The Mosque and Skanderbeg Square

After a cappuccino and some mineral water with her co-worker Ilda (also dressed to the nines) in a swank outdoor café that could have been in Milan or Lyon, Ada guided me to the hotel. As it turns out, I had been standing no more than 5 feet from this very spot just hours before, while canvassing passers-by with: “A flisni anglisht?” and if they said “Yes”, asking, “Do you know where I can find the Hotel ‘H 1996?’” showing them the same words I had written down on a card. The responses were polite and varied and usually ended with another question. For instance, “Maybe… this hotel… is near Skanderbeg Square?” or, “Did you try look by the park?” These responses, as I later learned, were the polite, Albanian, non-sequitur way of saying, “I have no idea.”

I am pretty stubborn and can usually find my way around, so I kept asking, trying to triangulate. Finally a cab driver pulled up, and when I asked him, he patched me through on his radio to the dispatcher, who spoke English. After I reiterated my appeal and spelled the name of the hotel, I finally threw in the towel when the crackling response from the radio was, “I’m sorry, there is no such place.” This, of course, despite the fact that I was standing directly in front of the hotel at the time… however, go figure - the sign that was there was in Bulgarian - and assuming anyone could actually read it, it said, “Bar Sofia.” 

Hotel H 1996 (Bar Sofia... In Russian)

Tirana has been in a construction boom for a decade now and so much is new that no one seems to know where anything is. Indeed, after the nearly two hours I spent getting lost and un-lost, I discovered later that I actually knew the city better than many of its residents. They were amazed when I seemed to know where everything was and by the fact that a foreigner had managed to get around for 2 hours all by myself. The unpleasant fact that I found the need to demonstrate this talent seemed to be considered both a slight and a challenge to most of the Albanians I met. Apparently the fact that I was wandering on my own seemed to imply that someone had dropped the ball with regards to Albanian standards of hospitality, and everyone seemed intent on ensuring this discourtesy didn’t happen again…

That evening while sampling some nice Albanian merlot over an excellent antipasto plate with Ada, her boyfriend Ari, and several of their friends, the topic of Kirk’s trip to Korca came up. “How did you manage it – getting Kirk on the right furgon (mini bus) to Korca?” someone asked.

I told them that I had read in my guidebook that furgons to Korca might be sometimes found near the stadium and that we had merely driven there, and stumbled upon one that had just left for Korca which we had flagged down. (Public transport in Albania runs on a very informal ad-hoc basis and changes constantly - there is no central bus station.)

A murmur of Albanian swept through the group - I heard the word “stadion” and could not translate much else. Ada finally concluded the discussion, “So the bus to Korca can now be found by the stadium? That’s good to know.”

We were sitting outdoor in another hip café/bar in the section of town called the Bllok or Bloku. This four square block area, now filled with upscale restaurants, clothing stores, and bars, seemed to be the only part of Tirana not undergoing major reconstruction. This, because, for nearly half a century the Bllok area was the only part of Tirana receiving maintenance and investment. For 45 years this area had been blocked off and surrounded by the armed guards who protected the homes of Enver Hoxha and the communist party. Only party members were allowed in, and the area was a great mystery to the rest of the population. Meanwhile, the rest of Tirana and Albania rusted and decayed and wholesale resettlements and arbitrary incarcerations kept the whole country in the grip of a cool gray fear.

Ari and Ada - in the Blloku

We had excellent food and even better conversation but it was a weeknight, and shortly before midnight, Ada and Ari chaperoned me back to my mystery hotel (which it turns out is co-owned by her father), while helping me call the airline to check on my bags. Good news – my bike had arrived, along with my bag and they would deliver it in the morning. Bad news – Kirk’s bag had not yet arrived and might - or might not - be on the next flight the following day at noon. After finishing the call to the airline, Ada then said, firmly, “now you must sleep – you had much travel today and a long drive tomorrow,” and left, closing the door behind her with a certain finality I found odd.

I waited for what seemed like a polite interval and then prepared to leave again to explore. Sure it was midnight in Tirana, but it was only 5pm Chicago time and it was my first night in a strange and exciting place and I had not had much chance to explore, so I grabbed my headphones and jacket and headed out, in a good mood, ready for adventure.

I walked down the flight of stairs to the café/bar and out to the front gate, which was now shrouded in darkness. There I was confounded to discover that I was locked in – the gate to the hotel courtyard had been shut and locked. There was no buzzer, and no one around - and the 10 foot metal fence around the courtyard had sharp metal spikes at the top and no good purchase for climbing. I was a prisoner in my own hotel… no one in, no one out. My mood collapsed.

Not so fast - I followed the fence around the corner and found that where the metal fence met the next building there was a cement wall, so I grabbed the iron bars and then walked myself spiderman-like up the side of the wall, and then sitting on the escarpment, swung my legs over to drop back down to the outside of the fence. What I didn’t notice were the bits of glass wedged in the concrete of the lip as a barrier, and as I slid and dropped the long way to the ground, their was a  loud tearing sound as the seat of my pants, my boxers, and bits of my skin stayed up as I went down.

“Fantastic!…” Now I was a vagrant locked out of my hotel and at risk of indecent exposure. Not to be foiled again, I removed my jacket, tied it around my waist and then, happily, headed out into the city. I wandered the bloku and the square, the park and a few alleys, listening to my Ipod, exploring.

Upon returning to the hotel, the re-scaling of the fence proved a bit more nerve racking than the escape due to the sudden appearance and loud barking of two medium sized dogs. I surveyed them from my high perch back on the concrete wall and decided I’d rather deal with them than the Albanian police, dropping quickly down next to them, arms at ready. They continued barking but did not advance, so I walked calmly back to the stairway as they followed from a distance, scaled the steps to my room, locked myself in, and then threw the remnants of my jeans in the wastebasket before finally going to sleep.


Early on in the climb, before the switchback became ruler straight, there was slight bend by a dry stream and a rocky path up mountains. Here I happened upon another lone donkey – however this one was on its side, sprawled out and kicking limply, a desperate keening and mewling sound issuing from its foaming mouth. He had been hobbled to keep him from running off, but had somehow fallen onto the dusty gravel by the road and his feeble efforts to get up were impeded by the knotted rope around his forelock. I struggled slowly by, a sick feeling developing in my stomach. He had been left for dead… or perhaps his owner would be back in moments? Any thoughts of stopping were overwhelmed by a sudden nightmarish vision – in my mind’s eye I could see the donkey’s head shrivel, collapse and decompose, the black sockets of his dead eyes boring into my back. On sudden impulse, I accelerated.


switchback 1 switchback 1

The heat and mountain worked at me from the outside, and the image of donkey and the smell of death roiling in my stomach worked me from the inside. For one of the few times in my adult life I began to have that kind of fear only found in childhood and in dreams – it was pervasive and invisible. I was afraid of this hill, of this heat, of the subtle contractions in my left calf -  the first echoes of a cramp, and of the similar contractions of sheep’s brain in my abdomen. Already I was almost out of water – I could not afford to vomit.

I suffered, I climbed, and left the valley behind. As the world opened up, in a burst of inspiration, I switched lanes to the left side and into the non-existent oncoming traffic where at least I had a view of the landscape.  Twenty minutes of full-on labor later I approached the end of the first switchback and the first 180 degree turn...

the end of switchback 1 the end of switchback 1