Monday, April 27, 2009

The Secret Is Out

As we creep closer to summer, I get the sense that things are changing here. I hear more non-Albanian voices everywhere. In the restaurants, at the beach, sitting at the "Balcony of Dajti" watching the endless parade of ski-lift gondolas shuttle up from Tirana and back down again I hear German, French, ... and English. Lots of English. More people are getting clued in to the hidden tourist potential of the country and I'm glad to see it.

To confirm my impressions, The Guardian newspaper has published its #1 backpacker destination for 2009 and the winner is ... (may I have the envelope, please?) ... Albania! The article is well written and gives some hint of the increased level of interest in holidays here due to the combination of daily flights from London and the financial crisis making travellers look closer to home for exotic holiday destinations. I only have a few quibbles with the author.

First, he refers to the beach at Dhermi as "Drymades" which is the Greek name for the village. This could make it tough for a traveller to find the place as all the maps and road signs list it by the Albanian name, naturally. Second, he raves about buying a mojito for "only" 3 pounds Sterling. For that you could get 2 liters of fantastic red wine or more raki than you can possibly drink. You want cheap mojitos? Go to Cuba.

Now that the secret is out, I expect it will be harder to find a deserted stretch of beach this year. Oh well, I'll just have to look a little harder. I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I Speak For The Trees

I like Edi Rama.
Not because I am politically aligned with him. (I'm not.)
Not because he's such a snappy dresser. (He's not.)
Not because he featured in a pretty cool rap song. (He did.)
I like Edi Rama because he's a Lorax.
Like our little yellow friend, Edi speaks for the trees. Or more precisely Edi has been doing a lot of speaking about trees. Not just speaking. The Tirana mayor's office has been planting trees like crazy all around the city. The latest report I saw said the Bashkia had planted over 8,000 trees along the roads in Tirana as part of the "Nje qytetar,nje peme" project. "One citizen, one tree." I hope he reaches that goal. There are few cities on earth that need the healing, cleansing presence of greenery more than Tirana.
On a late winter walk the sun sets low at the end of the road and it's hard not to get a little depressed at the bare concrete and skeletal limbs of the trees.

A few weeks later and what a difference! By the end of May the canopy will stretch across the road keeping the temperatures in the tolerable range.

The little trees lining these stretches of street were planted in February and are just starting to green. It will be years before they come close to fulfilling their potential, but it's a wonderful beginning.

One day every street in Tirana will be as lush and shade-dappled as this one with an overhead view like the one below.

For these things I like Edi. I also like the good folks at Raiffiesen Bank, BKT, Tirana Bank, and many others who are co-sponsoring this effort. They are taking the small steps necessary to lift the quality of life for everyone who lives (and breathes) in Tirana. They may not have been raised on Dr. Seuss like I was, but they must understand the sentiments of the last lines of the "The Lorax:"

And all that the Lorax left here in this mess

was a small pile of rocks, with one word... "UNLESS."

Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn't guess.

"But now," says the Once-ler, "Now that you're here,

the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

All Roads Lead Through Albania

I know the quote actually is, "All roads lead to Rome." The Roman Empire can be justifiably proud of building the network of transportation arteries which tied the Mediterranean world together. Even in that time the land that eventually would become known as Albania was key to transit and trade. The Via Egnatia bisects Albania and was the key link between the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire. The road from Rome to Istanbul leads through Albania.

Evidently, so does the modern road from Wales to Kamchatka. I had the great pleasure of making the acquaintance of Walter Colebatch and his fellow adventurers, Marcin and Jon, as they passed through Albania on the first stage of the Sibirsky Extreme Challenge. They are at the beginning of a ten-month effort to ride to the northern-most and eastern-most point of Asia ever attained on two wheels. To warm up for the effort, they plotted a route through 20 countries in 15 days. Albania was country number 11. The three of them are great guys with boundless appetite for adventure.

They were extremely impressed by Albania and Tirana. It helped that they stayed overnight when the government was throwing its big "Whoo-hoo-we-just-got-into-NATO-take-that-Enver-Hoxha" party. The streets were mobbed. UB-40 was playing in the square. And hordes of enthusiastic NATO cheerleaders were racing around, hanging out the windows of their cars waving Albanian and NATO flags. I played it off like a normal Sunday night in Tirana, which, now that I think of it, wasn't far off!
If you like bikes, travel, adventure, and an unshaven Polish biker just hop over to their blog and follow them on the journey of a lifetime. If you're in the Albanian tourism industry, pay attention. It's people like this who will be the fastest growing segment of the Western tourism market. Albania still has the cachet of being unexplored country full of adventure. As the physical infrastructure improvements bring the title of this post closer to reality, I sure hope the entrepreneurs here will entice a few more thrill seekers like Walter and his compadres.