Albania – Tirana, tourism and the tyranny of language

“Excuse me. Are you…er…open?” The cafe’s proprietor furiously shook his head.

We were getting suspicious. This was the fourth rejection we had received having tentatively asked if they were serving customers.

Yes, it was early but they certainly looked open. Old men were huddled around mirror-topped tables speaking in furtive whispers whilst entrails of steam from their coffee cups coiled towards the nicotine-stained ceiling.

A tray of freshly baked Shendetlie, a delicious nut and honey concoction oozing with sugar, sat winking at us from the side. We were hungry and thirsty, dammit, and apparently no one wanted our custom.

And then the proverbial lek dropped. In Albania, you shake your head for yes and nod for no. Of course you do! What idiots were were and how we laughed when we finally secured breakfast after muttering scandalously – and incorrectly – about Albanian hospitality.

To be perfectly honest, everything seems a little back-to-front in Albania. It’s Europe, and yet feels as though it isn’t. It has a fabulous coastline but this has been visually destroyed by the vagaries of developers. The throaty roar of a V12 engine belonging to a sparkling supercar roars past you at 80mph on an unmade and pothole-pocked country road, leaving men on mules spluttering dust.

Tirana, the capital, is one of the least friendly on-the-eye I have ever had the pleasure of casting my retina across and yet the people are wonderfully friendly. Well, to me at least. The building next door to our hotel had a whacking great hole in the side, apparently a vengeful attack executed by a wrecking ball when the developer fell out with the customer.

Once in the countryside, tiny churches nestle in nooks on stoney hills and birds of prey skim the clouds. The views are spectacular but risk being ruined by plastic bags, fly tipping and other human detritus. It’s a country that has so much potential and, if it chooses to capitalise on tourism, could go far with its hikes, homestays and hospitality.

The nation, and its people, deserve a little TLC and I hope the government decides to provide it.

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