European travellers are increasingly flocking to the Balkans as a cheap, sunny, relaxing holiday destination. While I rave about Lake Ohrid in Macedonia and the cultural scene in Belgrade, my friends have been returning from Croatia with stories of wild beach parties and 3-day Techno festivals. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by Albania. I always imagine it as a land of impassable misty mountains where marauding bandits roam around on horses with AK-47s, capturing women for a lifetime of servitude either in the sex industry or – worse – the Albanian homestead.
So I asked my good friend, ace short story author and former inhabitant of Tirana, Karen Murdarasi to shed some light on this enigmatic Balkan state and perhaps explode some of these deeply entrenched prejudices. A quick look at the pictures below tells an all-together more positive story of Albania. It kind of looks like an inexpensive version of Greece: Clear blue waters, tasty food and sunshine by the bucketload. So, without further ado, here are Karen Murdarasi’s top five awesome things to do in Albania.
5 Awesome Things To Do In Albania by Karen Murdarasi
I’m not being sarcastic. There are (more than) five good things about Albania, and I’m not including an episode of Top Gear being filmed there. Albania gets a bad press. The menfolk are always the bad guys on TV dramas and films. (Never watch Taken. Never, never, never watch Taken 2.) The women, although beautiful, are assumed to be dim and usually involved in some way in the sex industry. And there’s a scurrilous rumour that Albanians as a whole are very fond of Norman Wisdom films. None of this is true. So, to set the record a little straighter, here are five things that are in fact good about “The Land of the Eagle”.
5) Eat Fast Food With A Twist
Albanian fast food is cheap and delicious. There’s byrek, which is flaky pastry filled with sharp-tasting cheese or meat, and sufllaqe, which is like a kebab, but if kebabs were gorgeous. The drinks available are also gorgeous – peach juice, apricot and orange, natural lemonade. And Coke, of course; Albania is still a place in the world.
It does not, however, have a McDonalds (yet). Instead it has Kolonat (The Collonade) in the capital, which serves burgers and stuff, along with pizza and chicken. The reason I mention it is that the big K above Kolonat is printed in a distinctive curvy way, so that it could easily be mistaken for some other letter…
4) Discover The Controversial History
I’m into history, having studied Ancient History at university, so I realised where Albania was for the first time when I found out it was ancient Illyria / Illyricum. In fact, despite various wars, migrations and occupations, the Albanians are still pretty much directly descended from the ancient Illyrians, and their language seems to come from Illyrian too.
The history of the Albanians hasn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs over the last three thousand years, but it’s certainly interesting. The people they’ve been defeated, occupied or invaded by make up a Who’s Who of history, from the Greeks and Romans through the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler. Much of this history is also what’s known as ‘contested’. It could keep a history department in professorships for decades.
3) Enjoy The Fantastic Weather
This is less of a niche interest, I imagine. Albania is on the Mediterranean (as long as you’re not being too pedantic, and allow offshoots of the Med like the Ionian Sea). Therefore is has fabulous weather for most of the year. From March to October, it ranges from warm to very hot and from bright to glorious. Cafes have most of their tables outside and sandals are the only footgear required.
All that sunshine makes you want to go to the beach, of course, which brings me on to number two…
2) Experience The Varied Landscape
Long, sandy beaches. Rugged, picturesque mountains. Pellucid lakes, dark forests and magisterial gorges. Wide, shallow rivers meandering over pure white stones. And also the one large, flat bit where most people live and all the crops are grown. Albania has all the scenery you could want in really quite a small country (the size of Wales), and most of it is breathtaking.
Albania is part of the Balkan Peninsula, like Greece, so naturally it looks quite similar. It’s also blessed with lots of natural springs, like Greece, so you can buy very nice local mineral water very cheaply. My favourite is Tepelena Water which is superior to all the others on account of being, as it proclaims on the label, “suffled how it gush.” You can’t argue with that.
1) Lose Track Of Time
Of all the wonderful things about Albania, the overall winner for me has to be the pace of life. This is what I miss most when I come back to the UK. There is UK time and there is Albanian time, and the two are very different.
It’s not just about being late for everything (although that’s certainly part of it), it’s about valuing certain things above punctuality – things like having time for your friends, enjoying the journey, eating and dressing properly, and not overheating in the glorious sunshine. Once you manage to overcome your western obsession with timekeeping, this attitude is amazingly relaxing and liberating: Whatever it is, it can wait; enjoy now.
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Find out more about Karen the guest blog author here
Dear Mr Oakley,
I read with interest that Policy Exchange, the think tank who have been given the task of investigating the UK Government’s latest back-to-work/slave labour initiative, are looking for members of the public to offer advice.
I thought I would offer you my insights, as they might help you understand the situation a bit more.
What barriers and challenges do individuals and households face in increasing their hours and earnings (both now and pre-recession)?
1. One major cause of loss of earnings is the wholesale use of private employment agencies (not only to place the unemployed into private companies, but also – scandalously – into the public sector. ) This has meant that private employment companies have creamed off money which should be going to workers. This might be of interest to you, as you represent Job Centre Plus.
2. Another barrier to wealth for the masses is selling them the lies that if you work hard, you will be rich. Back-to-work/slave labour initiatives only help to perpetuate this myth. Money does not come from working. It comes from rackateering through renting out property or investing in companies which will help ‘bring democracy’ to the middle east. Those great British institutions, Hawker Siddeley and BP are generally a safe bet, due to their involvement in oil wars.
3. Another major barrier to wealth creation and cause of unemployment is the privatisation of state-run industries. Private companies bid for contracts and they do this by making themselves cheaper. They do this by cutting wages and removing workers’ rights. This fuels both unemployment and low wages. How much money did the government really save through closing down the mines and turning the north of England into a DLA allowance haven? In the long run, not very much. It is clear, then that the closing of industry was ideologically rather than economically motivated.
4. And finally, the greatest barrier is, of course, the rich themselves. Instead of investing in businesses which might create jobs, they prefer to make money by investing in massive debt chains with the poor workers of the world at the bottom. They also manage to avoid paying the taxes which could be used to create jobs.
How effective is the current system in helping people to do this?
The current system is extremely effective at perpetuating the barriers to higher wages. It should be applauded and given medals for its contribution to perpetuating the barrier. Remember when Barack Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize for bombing Afghanistan? The DWP should get a similar honour.
The current system prevents the working classes from attaining wealth or status by keeping them subservient to the elite through debt. It ensures a constant flow of 3rd world migrants who will depress wages ad infinitum.
It is doing a great job at keeping the people uneducated by lowering teachers’ wages to mean that usually only the very mediocre ever consider school teaching as a profession. It does a great job, too, at lowering educational standards across the board through comprehensive education, league tables and a whole host of other successful Maoist education programs.
It even systematically prevents people from starting their own businesses or ever having a chance of owning their own homes, thus preventing them from becoming mini capitalists themselves. That’s right – the system doesn’t even want ‘normal’ people to be capitalists.
If you are confused about capitalism, you might want to take a look at this video:
What policies have been used and tested in this area across different parts of the UK or internationally? How successful have these policies been?
I could tell you about how in Berlin, the local government caps rent prices to prevent the inflation of rental prices. This prevents people from becoming poorer by the day as more and more of their money is sucked into landlords’ pockets, but I know that you do not have the power to affect such a change.
You also have no power to banish private employment agencies from the UK and allow Jobcentre Plus to place people in jobs. You do not even have the power to allow Jobcentre Plus to exclusively place people in public sector jobs, on a not-for-profit basis.
You might like to take a leaf out of the NBA’s book. The NBA ruled that the best way to prevent wage inequality is to put a cap preventing any one player from earning more than 30 times the average wage. If this were applied nationally, this would mean that if a businessman wanted to increase his own wages, he would have to find a way of doing it that increased the average wages of his own workers. But we know that, powerful as your think tank is, and successful as these policies could be, none of these measures is going to happen.
We both know that if you tried to implement any of the above measures, you would undoubtedly find yourself dead from ‘suicide’ in a field in Oxfordshire quicker than you can say “military industrial complex”.
Whatever you think of his politics, Nige is undoubtedly the most hilarious man in Europe right now.
This is what happens when you follow Google Maps
The quickest route back from Munich to the UK by road is quite possibly one of the dullest, scariest and most excruciating drives you would ever have the misfortune to experience in your life. Google maps suggests a route roughly taking in Stuttgart – Dortmund – Belgium – Calais – UK. Anyone insane enough to take the search engine’s advice will surely be forgiven for believing they must have died and gone to one of the innermost circles of hell.
Part one: Bavaria
There are two main drawbacks to driving here. First is the tractors. They travel at 25 kilometers and hour and are driven by ruddy cheeked, lederhosen-wearing sausage munchers who will do anything to get that pile of precariously topplable logs from one place to another. If you thought leather shorts and green hats with feathers in were only a fancy dress costume worn at Oktoberfest, you were wrong. They are the look of choice for any self respecting German farmer.
The German farmer’s wife, however, is perhaps an even worse creature to encounter on your voyage through hell. She takes her sartorial advice from old newsreels of Russian peasants and spends all day wearing a headscarf and sweeping the pavement with a broom. Not a sweeping brush, mind, but a traditional straw broom like in Harry Potter, but without the quidditch. If you have the audacity to drive through her street, you can expect a piercing glare at best, or for her to keel over and die from the shock of seeing an Auslander in a right hand drive vehicle at worst.
Part Two: The Autobahn
The Germans are proud, staunch supporters of the lack of speed limit on their autobahns. In the closeted Catholic world of South Germany, it is one of life’s few freedoms.
There are two ways to drive on the autobahn. The first is to drive in the slow lane at 60mph, sandwiched between enormous lorries (usually laden with the aforementioned precarious piles of topplable logs). The second option is to drive in the fast lane, for there are only two lanes. This lane is populated by maniacal, arrogant Audi and BMW drivers who think that two inches is a reasonable stopping distance at 150mph. Drive for more than ten minutes on any autobahn and you will see burned-out Citroens littering the hard shoulder who have had to push their car way beyond its mechanical limit to avoid the hooting and flashing of an impatient Mercedes owner.
Part Three: The Ruhrgebiet
The Danube and the Rhine were the information superhighways of the middle ages, with people, goods and ideas travelling by boat across Europe. Along the Rhine sprang up mighty cities, which in time industrialised and became the powerhouses of German industry. The northernmost edge of this region is called the Ruhrgebiet. To drive through the Ruhrgebiet is to experience the very depths of humanity. Faceless concrete, billowing industrial smog and lashing horizontal rain await the intrepid motorist as she crawls through endless snarls of choked-up motorways.
Part Four: Belgium
Belgium is perhaps the most geographically unlucky place on the planet. Trapped between the channel ports and the rest of Europe, it is a thoroughfare for every conceivable type of truck, lorry, articulated freight vehicle, refrigerated lorry and delivery van ever. And we all know how awful these drivers are. Is there anything worse than the self satisfied, overweight, dirty fingernailed long-distance haulage driver whose only joys in life are king size Mars Bars and onanism?
If there is anything worse, it’s the Belgian road system itself. The potholed and cracked roads buckle under the strain of being the gateway to Europe. And for some inexplicable reason, the slow lane on the motorway turns into the slip road at EVERY exit, meaning you have to dart into the fast lane at every junction, lest ye be whisked off to Liege.
Part Five: Calais
Calais was owned by the English until 1558 and, dear God, it shows. Go to any town in France – and I mean any town – and you can expect a relatively pleasant town square, pavement cafes with dismissive waiters, a pretty church. Not in Calais. 500 years under the English yoke has had such a detrimental effect on the Calais-dwellers’ psyche that they seem to be modelling their town on either post-war Coventry or the slums of Glasgow circa 1935. Listless would-be-asylum-seekers pace around the town centre, awaiting the great voyage to the UK in the deluded belief it’s somehow better there than France. Gangs of sullen youths loiter in the train station, waiting for a train to anywhere except here.
Part Six: England
So you’ve made it back to Dover in one piece. Back in good old Blighty, with its considerate drivers, friendly policemen and polite pedestrians. After spending so long on the continent, your chances of a) Getting in the correct lane, b) Not undertaking on the motorway, or c) Remembering which way round a roundabout goes are about zilch. Good luck with that.
Bavaria – Austrian Lakes – Slovenian Alps – Ljubjana – Zagreb – Istrian Peninsular (Croatia) – Venice – Verona – French Alps – Aix En Provence – Avignon – Languedoc – Pyrenees – Bilbao – San Sebastian – Dordogne – Rhone Valley – Brittany – Normandy – UK.
Here are some of the best snaps I took en route with my phone.
The Konigsee, Bavarian Alps, Germany
Hitler’s mountain lair, the ‘Eagles Nest’ at Bertchesgaden, Germany
Dragon Bridge, Ljubjana, Slovenia
Gondola Drivers, Venice, Italy
The Cathedral Cloisters, Verona, Italy
Pope’s Castle at Avignon, France
Carcassonne, France by night
The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
The destroyed village of Oradour, France
Mont St Michel, Normandy, France
What is it with Europeans and castles? Why did they have to build so many? Why are they so big? And why, as I once overheard an American tourist say in Edinburgh, did they have to ‘build them so goddam far from the train station?’
You build castles for lots of reasons, but mostly:
1. To show off, of course.
2. To protect your family from invaders intent on the whole rapin’ ‘n’ pillagin’ thing.
3. To Live out your powdered-wig-wearing-fantasy of being Louis XIV, even though it’s, like, 1895 and you’re German.
4. Because you’ve just decided ‘I am the REAL pope and that charlatan in the Vatican will have to come and get me if he wants to argue the toss’.
5. Because you’re mad (see 3. and 4.)
So, dear armchair traveller, here is a not very exhaustive and extremely biased (but awesome!) list of the best European castles.
5. Conwy, Wales
Welsh castles were mostly used as places to avoid the Welsh. Marauding hordes intent on pillaging your women and raping your livestock are best avoided, let’s face it.
4. Carcassonne, France
Even the throngs of shouty middle class Anglais on Range Rover powered booze-and-fromage-athon holidays cannot ruin this one. Strictly speaking, Carcassonne is a fortified town, but whatevs.
3. Versailles, France
Built by this mad guy who wore powdered wigs and thought he was Louis XIV or something… oh, hang on…
2. The Alhambra, Spain
In spite of being strict Muslims, they chose to name their castle after a pork product and a piece of underwear. Go figure.
1. Kalemegdan Fortress, Serbia
Anyone foolish enough to attempt to mess with the Serbs had better have a game plan for this bad boy. It’s been fought over by everyone from the Romans to the Nazis. They even have a US stealth fighter plane they shot down, in the castle museum. Rad!
If Mr Nibblesworth can play ‘Imagine’, so can you.
Wouldn’t it be great to play the piano like this cat? Yep, but in the words of Gordon Gecko: Time is money and life’s too short to smoke bad crack.
Instead of spending 10,000 hours hunched over the ivories, memorising chords, building muscle memory or – worst of all - learning to sight read, you could be chillin’ with your homies, sippin’ gin and juice and partyin’ with dirty naked freaks. Just learn to play one of these songs. It’ll take, like, two days. Promise.
1. Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata
Wow your dinner party guests with this incredibly simple, yet ridiculously effective piece.
Based on simple right-hand arpeggios and two-finger bass chords, this piece can be begun in a day, learned in a week and perfected in a month by any beginner who’s willing to put in the effort. No-one can argue with Beethoven, let’s face it.
In a word: Beautiful.
Skill factor: **
Wow factor: *****
Cheat factor: *****
2. John Lennon – Imagine
In spite of enjoying being photographed in soft focus in empty rooms with huge, white, kitschy pianos, John Lennon was not much of a piano player.
The song is based around long, slow chords of C and F and only includes one black note. If it’s good enough for Mr Nibblesworth…
In a word: Easy peasy. (OK, that’s two words, but never mind.)
Skill factor: *
Wow factor: ***
Cheat factor: ****
3. John Cage – 4’33”
Probably not a good one to bash out at a dinner party, unless your dinner guests are European intellectuals or Zen monks.
Four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence is not the most challenging of pieces to play. In fact, it’s much harder to listen to than to play. This one takes a second to master, but a lifetime to understand.
In a word: Deep.
Skill factor: *
Wow factor: *
Cheat factor: *****