After a couple of days on the coast in Montengro, being warm after the days of snow, we made our way into Albania.
The change as we came across the border was quite dramatic as you could see the change in wealth levels, and the person:donkey ratio altered dramatically.
The principle means of transport here is a shared minivan called a furgon, when they have enough passengers they leave. We had a head start on filling ours as we'd met a Canadian couple the day before and had been sharing accommodation and transport with them already. Eventually the rest of the furgon filled up with locals and we were off to the capital, Tirana.
In the depths of the back of the van we started to hear a loud thud noise every few minutes. Didn't sound like our bags and eventually one of the Canadians discovered it was a fish flopping about in a bag. It's a good metaphor for Albania so far, seems not too unusual, but then something goes thud, and you realise that it's got a quirk, or two.
We've settled into a backpackers here in central Tirana and it has made for an excellent base to explore the city. It's a really colourful place and quite unlike any other place we've been. Firstly, as an ex-communist state you'd expect loads of stark grey concrete buildings, and while they're there, the done thing is to paint them bright colours. Usually yellow or orange but there is the occasional GREEN! What's really surprising is that even the new builds are following the same format and are a even brighter!
In the city there's a lot more poverty than we've had in other countries with a lot of beggars, especially outside the Orthodox Church we visited today (although I'm not sure if they made a special pilgrimage as today is Orthodox Easter Sunday). The street commerce has also stepped up a peg too, in addition to the shoe shiners and usual tat, there are guys changing currency and all sorts. Paul had a rather persistent wee fellow try and sell him a pen for 100 leke, and the boy wasn't interested in Paul's counteroffer to sell one of his old work pens for 200 leke.
There is also a very strong middle class coming through however with lots of clean "normal" looking shops, and people enjoying the parks by sitting in the sun with coffees. One of the more interesting shop phenomenons is the number of shops selling big meringue style wedding dresses, I would say we've seen over 20.
Then again, today we saw a good half dozen weddings too so perhaps opening a dress shop is a smart thing to do! Seems that the local wedding tradition is to have a convoy of vehicles pass through the city all making as much noise as possible, with the videographer leaning out the window of the front vehicle to capture it all. We were lucky to get up close and personal with one of the weddings as the wedding party entered a mosque we were being guided through by a dear old man who was telling us all about the old paintings in Italian.
As Easter Sunday sadly all the museums were shut so we've not been able to see much of the old communist art, but we did venture out of the centre a bit to see the statue of the Mother of Albania. An impressive, not to mention enormous, white statue on a hill overlooking the city, still holding her communist star.
Tomorrow we plan to visit an old Ottoman town before heading to what we've been told is one of the more isolated coastal areas in Europe. Fingers crossed the rain stays inland.