Friday, June 29, 2007


From Serbia I headed northwards into eastern Hungary. The towns, such as Szeged and Debrecen, are clean and orderly, the centres displaying the wealth and power of a bygone era, from the age of empire. And though everything is neat and tidy (they even have extensive cycle lane networks, something we haven't managed to set up in Britain) it lacks the depaysment I've grown accustomed to and therefore marks the beginning of my return home to 'civilisation'. Here supermarkets are stacked with the exact same products and brands as in the rest of western Europe; cars ignore the fact that they are bigger, tougher and less mortal than mere pedestrians and obey traffic rules; and wide, uncluttered pavements and pedestrian malls make for effortless, carefree strolling. In a strange way I'm missing Chinese supermarkets with their aisles of freezers filled with innumerable types of dumplings and where you can buy live terrapins (though not as pets); I recall with fondness having to take my life into my own hands every time I crossed the road in Cairo; my taste buds still tingle at the thought of streetfood from around the world - Mexican tamales, Bolivian empanadas and Laotian sticky rice with something-grilled-ona-stick (best not to ask what it was); and I like to reminisce about the constant obstacle course that constitutes walking in an Indian town, having to continually look out for potholes, open sewers, cowpats or fresh piles of human excrement. (On second thoughts scratch that last one.) Hungary does at least have one exotic thing going for it: its language. Totally unlike any of its neighbours and only distantly related to Finnish you can forget even trying to understand it. Plus, what I find quite astonishing, very few ordinary Hungarians seem to be able to speak another language, be it English, Russian or German (the latter being the most common). But luckily for me this ought to be the last country where language is a barrier and I can start being a bit more lazy, at least on that front.

In terms of landscape the east of the country s easy to describe: flat. Over half the entire country is taken up by the Great Hungarian Plain, also known as the puszta. Historically the area was mainly boggy marshland, but after the Tisza river, which flows through the plain, was controlled in the 19th century much of the land became available for agriculture and now huge fields of wheat and corn stretch to the horizons on either side as you drive through. The uniformity is broken by the odd farmhouse - low, thatched and very long - and the unique wells that have become a symbol of the region. Some areas of original marshland also remain, which have become havens for waterbirds, and where people still herd the characteristic Hungarian longhorn cattle. Although it might sound rather boring compared with the dramatic allure of the mountains, there is something calm and immense about the puszta, especially with the low cumulus clouds that emphasize the sense of distance by forming a fluffy 'lid'. I had a great day ccycling around the little field tracks amongst the old farms and ponds, and it wasn't until after my late lunch, when I sat back on my bike, that I realised how big the place is and how far I had ridden, a reminder that I feel even now as I sit here typing this post.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Dinner In Vojvodina

The northern third of Serbia is taken up by the region of Vojvodina which enjoys the status of an autonomous province (just like Kosovo until it became a de facto state under UN control). Vojvodina, on the other hand, has never had secessionist ambitions, possibly because the flat land would make a guerrilla war very difficult, but more likely because the place is itself a mini melting pot of many different ethnic groups (26) and 6 official languages - Serb, Hungarian, Slovak, Roma, Croat and Rusyn. So, depending on the ethnic make-up of a particular town signs will generally be in two, or perhaps three, languages.

During the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia the region was heavily targeted and many of the bridges that cross the Danube linking Vojvodina to Serbia proper were destroyed (three alone in Novi Sad, the capital). Since it's so far removed from Kosovo and of little strategic importance (it was the equivalent of bombing Plymouth to help protect the Scots in their bid for independence) that some analysts suggested that NATO wanted to push Vojvodina into separating from Serbia as well (still others believed the main reason was that the Americans had too many old bombs lying around and wanted an amusing way of getting rid of them). That was never going to happen as the people are far more interested in parties than politics. During the day in their spare time most Vojvodians(?) are down by the beach not caring in the least that they are landlocked: they have the Danube, they have sand and they have parasols so they're bloody well going to the beach. And in the evenings there always seems to be some sort of free live music either in town or by the river, and lubricating this party machine, like the oil of mirth, is copious amounts of beer.

For those with a penchant for something a little more serious Vojvodina has its share of history and spirituality. When the Turks captured Serbia and pushed their borders up to the Sava and Danube many Serbs fled north setting up a new patriarchate and many monasteries in the area around Fruška Gora leading to the low hill to become known as the Holy Mountain. Today it is a national park and there are many hiking trails that wind through the forests linking the still-functioning monasteries. Going further back during the last days of the Roman Empire and the Tetrarchy, the city of Sirmium (today's Sremska Mitrovica) became one of the capitals of the empire. But before any history buffs start packing their bags and making travel plans there is woefully little to be seen from the time (even the standard low walls look frightfully forlorn), though the town has a nice art nouveau centre.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bucolic Belgrade

As you travel north through Serbia the mountains gradually become smaller until you reach the Danube and the gently rolling hills of the Pannonian Plain. The characteristic sharp Ottoman minarets also become more scarce giving way to curvy orthodox churches. The forested countryside is dotted with small towns and villages merging unobtrusively into the landscape, each house possessing a sizeable garden with carefully tended vegetable plots and fruit trees. Like other Communist countries in which political expression and entrepreneurship were stifled (though in Yugoslavia less than in other places) the main outlet for peoples' energies were their homes and gardens which, despite modest means, were continually refurbished, extended, weeded, painted, and generally spruced up. So despite tatty old cars in the driveways and crumbling public buildings peoples' houses are generally very neat and tidy as is the country in general (this is the first country in a very long time where I've noticed special bins for dog poo). The Communist era also fostered a climate where people were left to do as they pleased in their personal affairs and so there are fewer hang-ups about what's seemly and what's not: people blithely cut the grass in boxer shorts and untied bathrobes, socks and sandals aren't social suicide and it's not uncommon to see men with their tops off in town. This is also the time for making hay and so throughout the countryside people are out with scythes cutting the long grass, or already collecting, drying and piling the hay onto large, conical haystacks. The place is also strewn with some beautiful, old monasteries, which are not only worth visiting in their own right, but are a great place to stay the night as you can almost always pitch your tent (if you're not offered a comfy bed that is) and the friendly monks will often feed you as well. Bonus!

Upon reaching Belgrade, the city of two rivers, sitting as it does at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube, one is finally out of the Balkans and into central Europe. Although no-one would call Belgrade a beautiful city in places it reminds me of Prague in places with some pretty art-nouveau buildings dotted around the centre (although it has a long history going all the way back to the Romans, the oldest building in Belgrade is less than 200 years old due to the continuous wars and sackings that have periodically ravaged the city). Although there are no obvious touristy things to see Belgrade has a vibrant and welcoming atmosphere as well as few strange attractions such as Tito's grave and the empty hulk of the ex-Chinese embassy that was bombed by the Americans in 1999 (what's particularly interesting about the embassy is that there isn't a single building within 100m of it, so it must definitely have been intentionally targeted). Personally I also love the fact that the opposite, northern side of the Danube is completely uninhabited, and so within a few hundred metres of the city centre there's an extensive wilderness that stretches out to the horizon towards Hungary. The low, Danube plain is also horribly hot and humid at this time of the year and it has got me yearning for some good-old British drizzle and grey, sunless skies!

Sunday, June 17, 2007


I've ended up staying longer here in Kosovo than I had planned, due mainly to my gracious host Camille who works at the French Office (Kosovo not being a country doesn't have embassies, instead foreign countries have 'offices' in Prishtina that are embassies in all but name). This has allowed me to catch a glimpse of the life of the elusive diplomatic expat (a group I had wanted to join when I was younger and still might) and the social goings-on of the foreign community in Prishtina. As well as, and this is no slight matter, allowing me to play my first game of ultimate frisbee in almost 3 years! It's no wonder that many Kosovars speak good English or German since the whole economy depends heavily on the foreigners (who number upwards of 25,000) as well as remittances from Kosovars living abroad, especially in Germany, having fled as political refugees or to find work during the conflicts of the 90's. And that leads me, sort of, onto a topic that I've wanted to talk about for a while.

In Britain and the rest of Europe a constant refrain one hears from the right-wing gutter press and populist politicians is that of foreign workers coming from abroad (mainly eastern Europe) to steal our jobs and take advantage of our welfare systems. Like most populist demagogy this is complete bullshit, and not only do migrants put more into the economy than they take out (as shown by this TUC report published today) but they also make a community more vibrant, tolerant and dynamic (and quite frankly, who would want to live in a Britain without Indian, Italian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese... restaurants? I certainly wouldn't). And on the other hand such people, if they had the choice, would usually rather be living in their home countries with their families and friends, surrounded by the culture which they grew up in. And so now that things are going slightly better in Kosovo and Albania (though they're far from ideal) I have met many migrants that have returned to try and help rebuild their countries, not because they were forced to leave, often they had good jobs and all the necessary documents to stay in the West and have full access to all state benefits, but because there really is no place like home. So, for the same reason that millions of Brits don't go over to Sweden to scrounge off their better healthcare system the Poles don't come swarming over to Britain.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tangled History, Improbable Peace

Kosovo is a region that, like Palestine and Kashmir, has gained worldwide fame for its unhappy recent history. Located in southern Serbia but with a majority Albanian (Kosovar) population it enjoyed a good deal of autonomy during the Communist period. So, after the fall of Communism, when the inevitable demand for independence was declared the bigger northern parent predictably moved in to 'protect its citizens'. There followed an exodus of people on both sides before the West, under the aegis of NATO with America and the Brits at the fore, intervened taking the side of the Kosovars (an easy choice as the Serbs, under Milosevic. were already a pariah state), forcing out the Serb forces and setting up a UN-run administration to try and sort out the mess. Now the western powers seem to be pushing for an independent Kosovo whereas Serbia, backed by the West's latest nemesis, Russia, will have none of it. In the Western media right and wrong seem self-evident as we all cheer for the plucky Kosovars, whereas on closer inspection the whole sorry mess is far more complicated (as is always the case).

The Kosovars would say that they are the original inhabitants of the region and therefore it belongs to them, but since the Serbs have been around in significant numbers for the past 800 years or more I consider that a moot point (though I have met Kosovars who claim that all the old churches dotted around the country are fakes, built only 50 years ago and part of a great Serb conspiracy to make people think that they've been there longer than they really have). They would also say that they have always been repressed by the Serbs, but in fact the balance of power has shifted many times over the years between the two sides, and whichever side has had the upper hand has taken out its frustrations on the other. And so both groups can point to past grievances to support their arguments. In fact Milosevic's rise to power was due to his defence of the Serbs who in the late 80's were having a hard time under the then-dominant Kosovars. Then in the 90's the Kosovars took advantage of the demonisation of Milosevic and the West's propensity to help the underdog and provoked the Serbs into a guerrilla conflict. Neither side acted in an exemplary manner and many independent observers say that the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) were particularly callous in actually wanting the Serbs to commit atrocities against their own people to get media sympathies on their side, something they achieved after some 800,000 Kosovars were forced to flee the region and become refugees. And so NATO duly stepped in with their "humanitarian bombing" campaign in early 1999 which infamously targeted civilian structures such as bridges, power plants and TV stations (and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade). The self-proclaimed goal of the mission was: "Serbs out, peacekeepers in, refugees back." An unfortunate turn of phrase as although the Serb military was routed and NATO forces and Kosovar refugees returned, only to be replaced by around 200,000 Serb refugees who fled the inevitable reprisals (it seems that no-one is ever innocent in war these days). And ever since the region has been administered by NATO.

And so the place is in a strange limbo before nationhood inhabited and controlled by expats belonging to various acronymic organisations and cliques: UNMIK, OSCE, UNDP, KFOR, UNHCR, ICRC, EUPT and plenty of others who arrived after the alphabet had been divvied up and had to settle for ordinary names (Halo Trust, Save the Children...). Kosovo is awash with white Landcruisers, for me the ultimate icon of UN profligacy. The Kosovars are anxiously awaiting the day they finally get their independence - it seems inevitable, not only because of international opinion, but because things have gone too far and there is too much bad blood for it to be possible to ever go back (one just has to look at the statues of martyrs from the conflict that are given pride of place in every town). Despite promises of human rights, equality and respect for minorities the thought of independence scares the living daylights out of the Serbs that remain, mostly in enclaves protected by KFOR (NATO peacekeepers) and, to all intents and purposes, cut off from the rest of Kosovo. And with reason too: many Orthodox churches as well as Serb properties were burned and destroyed (the few churches that remain in Kosovar towns now have to be guarded round the clock by foreign troops and are strictly off limits to Kosovars) in reprisal by the Kosovars after the arrival of NATO troops, Some Serbs are even too afraid to leave their villages.

What intrigues me most, however, are the parallels between Kosovo and Nagorny Karabagh. Both areas had concentrations of minorities with a different language and religion; both regions are culturally important for the majority group (Kosovo contains the seat of the first Serb patriarchate and is also the site of Kosovo Polje, where the Serbs lost a major battle against the Ottomans, perhaps the most pivotal event in Serb history, like Culloden for the Scots); both sides are using 'historical evidence' to further their claims; and both the guerrilla conflicts were dirty. Despite these similarities (and there are more) the reactions towards the conflicts from the West have been completely different. In Karabagh the West has firmly taken the side of the Azerbaijanis, denouncing the Karabaghi declaration of independence and demanding a return to Azerbaijani sovereignty. Here in Kosovo, on the other hand, the West is insisting on independence for the region. Is it because Serbia makes a handy enemy, or could it possibly have something to do with the fact that Azerbaijan has got lots and lots of oil? I would hate it to be because of the latter but I'm too much of a cynic to think otherwise. Whatever the reasons it's certainly clear that the Kosovars are glad that America and Britain are fighting their fight, so much so that most big towns have got Bill Clinton and Tony Blair streets (if you don't believe me just check the picture below). Perhaps that's the reason why George Bush went into Iraq so readily (and why Tony was so eager to follow him) - he wanted to be imortalised in a country's transport system.

Politics and history aside Kosovo is a place still worthy of a quick visit. Of the orthodox churches that are still intact there are some absolute gems with peerless frescoes and forests of columns. and in Prizren they have one of the most relaxed towns in the Balkans with plenty of streetside cafes. Some other places are less pretty: in Peja many houses are still in the process of being repaired from the damage they suffered in 1999 (people often don't have enough money to do all the repairs at once so they do bits and pieces as and when they can afford it) and Prishtina is just an ugly town filled with horrible Communist buildings.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Arabian, Balkan, Indian, Chinese... Nights

Yesterday was my 1001st day on the road, not something I imagined happening some 3 years ago when I started seriously planning this trip. I had no real plans, just to have fun and see a few things in a year, possibly a year and a half - your regular slacker trip. No deeper agenda, no grand plans to 'find myself' or anything like that, but it has become more of a journey of learning and discovery (in the Discovery Channel sense of the terms). Although I'm not going to go into a detailed synopsis at this point, being so close to the end as I am (I cannot see me travelling for more than a few months more, if only because I will have run out of money), but this European leg has shown me truth of the saying that "sometimes one must look far to see what is near". (Is that a saying? I'm not sure, but if it isn't it certainly ought to be.)

For strange, exotic rituals you don't need to go to visit the lamas in Tibet when you can go and sit in on an Orthodox mass with its hypnotic chanting, random genuflections, waving of hands around the body, incense, kissing of icons and a liberal dousing of holy water. All as completely alien to me as any Buddhist ritual. Similarly it is still possible to find isolated communities living in remote mountains living in a way that hasn't changed in centuries, but like everywhere such communities are disappearing fast.

And when we think of incredible natural scenery we invariably imagine the vast expanses of the Sahara, the windswept emptiness of Patagonia, the lofty peaks of the Himalayas or even the pristine coral islands of the Pacific. And sure, Europe's small size and dense population preclude such large-scale wonders, but if you look closely you will find natural beauties to rival anything in the world. Here in Montenegro you can find the second-longest canyon in the world (marketed here as the second-largest, a term which hurts my precise, scientific sensibilities, as it doesn't specify whether it is the depth, length or width which is superlative), a fact which, had it been in say France or America, would have been widely advertised and known throughout the world, but as it is the Tara canyon is virtually unheard of outside the Balkans. Similarly there are lazy rivers that wind through karstic landscapes similar to those of northern Vietnam and Guilin, and Durmitor national park is a feast for the eyes.

I spent some time hiking in the afore-mentioned park (as I expect these to be my last major mountains). Rather aimlessly I headed along a trail and noticed a name that sounded interesting: Bobotuv Kuk. Well, I just had to check it out for myself and set off. Pretty soon I passed three guys from Podgorica who were walking along with strange contraptions strapped to their backs which, upon approaching, I found out were snowboards. Surveying the lush greenery around me I asked them whether they were crazy, to which they replied "probably", but that there was some snow near the summit. I left them behind me and headed on, and sure enough, below the peak there was a small, remaining snowfield, not that I would consider trudging 6 hours uphill with a heavy plank of wood strapped to my back for less than 400m of snow. However 400m of snow is lot when going up a steep hill with old trainers and it possibly ranks amongst one of the more stupid and dangerous things I've done, but with the summit in sight there was no way I was turning back. And so I finally made it to the top (passing a group of climbers decked out in heavy boots, tied together with ropes and making a right meal out of the ascent) to be rewarded by some of the most spectacular views in the world (I was later to discover that, at 2522m, it was the highest mountain in Montenegro), before quickly turning back and trying to make it back to town before sunset and a well-deserved hot shower.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

New Country

My first impression of Montenegro was not a good one as the immigration officer stamped one of the three remaining blank pages in my passport when there was plenty of room on other, used pages for the stamp. No big deal one might think, but to the traveller they are vital as many countries issue full-page visas and so I have room for only two more. Usually I stand by the immigration counter watching the officer like a hawk, steering his attention (and stamp) towards a space on an already used page, but this time it wasn't possible as I was on a cross-border bus and all the passports were collected together and taken into a back-office to be processed. One would think though that it would be possible to at least train these stamp monkeys that little bit.

But enough of my moaning, what about Montenegro? As the latest rat to have abandoned the limping ship that once was Yugoslavia Montenegro (or Crna Gora as they call it) is the youngest country on the planet, less than a year old (it's official birthday is the 8th of June). Since it's such a small country they didn't even bother to make their own money and have adopted the Euro instead, which certainly makes things easier for me. Youth, however, is no guarantee of virginity and the Montenegrin coastline is an extension of the exquisite Dalmatian riviera that starts in northern Croatia. Black, heavily wooded karst mountains (hence the name of the country) rise straight out of the sea to form irregular, sheltered bays with the occasional, discreet sandy beach. Due to the difficult topography this was the only part of the Balkans to remain free of Ottoman rule (which, if you mention it, gets you extra brownie points with the locals). Small, medieval towns dot the rugged coast, each a little maze of cobbled alleyways and cute little churches. The most famous are Budva and Kotor, the latter tucked away at the end of a secluded gulf, which is universally acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful in the world. This, unfortunately, is not a recent revelation, as is eminently shown by the large number of houses being built in the area and even larger number of real-estate agents advertising in English, German and Italian as well as the grotesquely large yachts moored in the marinas. Hopefully the interior will be less crowded with tourists.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Monuments To Paranoia

Like all small nations the Albanians are inordinately proud of their history and culture and trace their roots back to the ancient Illyrians who lived in the region and occupied themselves by waging wars against the Romans and Macedonians. Their national hero, however, is Skanderbeg who fought the advancing Ottoman empire for some 25 years halting their advance into Europe and thereby helping to save Vienna and Italy from the 'Terrible Turk'. Every town here has a Skanderbeg street and every history museum delights in showing maps of his campaigns with coloured arrows denoting troop movements. Despite him being the first to forge the first idea of Albanian nationhood very little remains from his rule except for a few ruined castles and the adoption of his crest of a double-headed eagle as the national flag. The legacy of the more recent Communist regime, on the other hand, is readily apparent. Most visible are the many public sculptures in the Socialist Realist style typical of Communist propaganda of the heroic worker/partisan/farmer. More intriguing, however, for the observant bus passenger are the countless one-man bunkers and pillboxes that dot the countryside. Hoxha was paranoid about being overthrown and so he set up a network of over 700,000 of these bunkers all across the country to defend against enemy attack. If one looks closely though most of them are not directed outwards in anticipation of an external attack, but rather inwards to stop an uprising from within (perhaps there is some justification in this as America and Britain did try to overthrow Hoxha in the early 50's but failed disastrously due to tip-offs from a British double-agent).

The northeast of the country is the most remote and scenic region and is known as the Albanian Alps (for obvious reasons) with several peaks exceeding 2500m. Although I didn't have time for any hiking I wasn't going to miss the most scenic ride in Albania (possibly the Balkans?), which, paradoxically, is also the most comfortable in the whole country (Albania's roads are not the best). From the northern town of Shkodra minivans leave early in the morning heading eastwards to the cul-de-sac village of Koman. A large dam towers over the village and once a day ferries leave from the other side of the dam along the 60km artificial lake. Although the lake is very long at its widest it barely exceeds 50m and in parts the gorge forms vertical walls hundreds of metres high on either side and it looks as if the boat is heading straight towards one until, at the last minute, a bend suddenly appears from amidst the outcropping rocks. But this is no pleasure cruise - the ferry is the only link to the outside world for the handful of people living in the surrounding mountains. Every now and again the ferry would pull up to a cliff face where someone would be standing as if stranded. As the boat would get closer a rocky path would be faintly discernible winding its way up the steep sides to some cottage that would be hidden at the top of a neighbouring mountain. And even for the communities on the other end who have road connections the ferry is still the first transport choice due to the poor conditions of the mountain roads. So not only do you get a beautiful ride, but you also see something of the local life along the way: people coming back from town laden with their weekly shopping, perhaps with a couple of piglets stuffed in a sack, and possibly some of the older men will be wearing the traditional, white, pleated kilts and leggings that used to be worn throughout the southern Balkans. Because the ferry goes only once a day I had to hitch my way back along the horrendous roads via the aptly-named town of Puke.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tales Of The Unexpected

Albania is certainly unlike any other European country and whilst travelling here the unexpected becomes the norm. (Or that could have more to do with the fact that I'm travelling 'blind' with neither guidebook nor map and so everything is a bit of a surprise really.) One day I get a half hour lesson in Albanian whilst buying bread and the next my tent gets pelted withstones by a stupid kid, who then has the nerve to ask for money. The country is still remarkably rural with no towns of any real size except for Tirana the capital. It reminds me very much of my childhood memories of Communist Czechoslovakia, and even the people here seem to have the dull, matte colouring of a 70's movie. Bumpy, narrow main roads wind their way through broad valleys linking up drab, concrete towns until, out of the blue, you come across a real gem, like the towns of Gjirokaster and Berat which sprawl down hillsides below rundown forts. Narrow cobbled lanes wind between stone houses and villas dating from Ottoman times. Unfortunately most of the churches and mosques from the period are damaged or destroyed completely following Hoxha's own little Cultural Revolution.

Communication is also proving difficult because although Albanian is an Indo-European language it is so far removed from the surrounding Slav and Romance languages that it is only when you hear the numbers that the relationship becomes clear. And because tourism hasn't really caught on yet the general level of English amongst the population is quite low. Instead the most commonly understood language is Italian due to the large number of Albanians that travel there to find work and the importance of Italy as a trading partner (70% of Albanian trade is with Italy). So I am forced to dig into my reserves of Spanish and smatterings of Italian that I've learned from mafia movies: capisce? bene bene! Suffice to say a lot of hand gestures are also needed to make myself understood.

Finding accommodation is also rather comical but I have finally perfected a technique that seems to work: when I arrive in a town I shoulder my backpack and start looking lost and foreign (not difficult as I am both) and sooner or later I will be approached by someone saying "hotel hotel?" offering a bed in a private home for half the price of a hotel room. Okay, sometimes it might be dodgy as when my host came back one night, obviously drunk and shouting about Italian mafia and damning the Serbs and the Russians for the whole neighbourhood to hear. But another time I got a big room to myself with TV an en suite, which was very handy as I really to needed to wash my clothes. It also gave me the opportunity to check out Albanian TV. I honestly believe that you can tell a lot about a nation from the TV programmes they watch and Albanian TV proved to be very interesting. The local productions are incredibly amateurish with wobbling cameras, poor lighting and shoddy effects, but the channels have a great ace up their sleeves: the small size of the country and the relative lack of laws, and so in the evenings they just put on DVDs of recent films with Albanian subtitles - absolute heaven for me, though I'm sure somewhat against copyright.

But upon arriving in Tirana accommodation proved to be rather tricky as my arch-nemesis, George W. Bush, is about to come to town (although he'll only be staying in the country for 7 hours) and so not only were beds scarce but prices were ridiculous. Damn that meddlesome Yank! The city itself is laid out in typical Grand Communist style, with ridiculously wide boulevards and pavements and a gigantic central square (perfect for military parades) and all around are boxy, concrete apartment blocks which, thankfully, have been painted various pastel shades to try and minimise the damage they inflict upon our retinas. Actually there is only one real 'site' in Tirana and that's an old mosque that managed to survive the Hoxha years which has incredible frescoes on the inside unlike any I have ever seen in a mosque, with depictions of palaces and trees (buildings are particularly rare in Islamic art).