Albania

I went to Albania in 2017 from North Macedonia. I was on a business trip to North Macedonia to visit partners we have there. On this trip, I entered the country on two occasions. The first was a day trip with our friends from North Macedonia, and the second was a trip to the capital.

Our day started by meeting our friends who live in Struga, a North Macedonian city situated on Lake Ohrid, (one of Europe’s deepest lakes shared between Albania and North Macedonia). With them, we took a day trip driving around the lake. We started in the morning and first stopped in a small little border town. The first impression I got was that the area seemed to be inhabited mostly with ethnic Macedonians, a phenomenon I had encountered all over the Balkans, where the national boundaries did not seem to correlate with the ethnic distribution. We stopped in a small coffee shop in this border town and walked around an Orthodox church. The town was very small so we did not stay for long and headed off for lunch in the larger town of Pogradec. Pogradec felt like a nice town with a good energy about it, again it was quite small with what seemed to be a central street with bars, shops, and cafes. There was a large Orthodox church at the end of the main street in a small square that we checked out, then headed down to the central street to find some food. We found a small juice bar where we had some filling smoothies. After the main town, we went and took a look down by the lake and saw the areas that people use as a beach. There was a nice little park area there too. Our friend’s wife had been cooking for us back in Struga, so we had to finish the trip around the lake and head back to North Macedonia. My friend’s wife had spent most of the day cooking so had a real treat laid out for us. It makes a real difference when you have friends in a country, as not only do you get to see the reality of how people live, you bypass cultural differences and just enjoy each other’s personalities.

Our second trip to Albania was a few days later after our meetings. Two friends drove us from Struga to Tirana, which took a couple of hours. Passing our way through the Albanian countryside we passed a number of the famous military bunkers, so stopped to take a look at them. The bunkers were constructed during the communist period of Albania by president Enver Hoxha. Concerned about a potential attack on the country Hoxha had almost two hundred thousand constructed across the whole country, averaging around six bunkers for every square mile. The bunkers were never needed, cost the country a lot of money and now stand mostly derelict. Despite various suggestions for their use ranging from projection rooms for outdoor cinemas to beehives, it seems their main use over the years has been for young couples to use as a secluded spot to indulge in a little romantic activity. Thankfully this was not where my wife and I spent our romantic getaway, we were happily nestled in a cute little Airbnb in Tirana.

Skanderbeg Square

We eventually arrived in Tirana and went for lunch with our friends downtown, but first I needed to see the statue of Albania’s great hero Skanderbeg in Tirana’s central square. The square was huge and very impressive, just walking around the city we already got a feeling that this was a very modern and vibrant city. For me I still had all the negative stereotypes that I had been told over the years of Albania being a dangerous lawless state where we had to be very vigilant about our safety, the reality was far from this. Tirana has a great vibe about it; it feels like a young energetic city, super safe and fun.

We had rented a small Airbnb apartment in the heart of the city that was very cosy. Inside was quite small, but we had a lovely little courtyard that looks like something out of a movie with small trees in the yard and greenery all around. From our apartment, we were able to easily walk around the city and get from place to place.

I had checked in on FaceBook that I was in the city, because to my shame I like to add pins to my FB map ;), and by chance one Italian friend of ours who we know from Indonesia was now living and working in the city, she saw my post and was available to meet up. So bonus, not only were we in a lovely city, we got to catch up with a great friend who would show us around the city. We went to grab some dinner at a traditional Albanian place that with some direction was able to cater for vegan. After dinner we went around to see some of the bars in the city, then we decided to go to Sky Tower, one of Tirana’s highest buildings with a 360-degree view. Sky Tower has a very fancy revolving restaurant that is one of the most expensive in town; it also has a cheap bar above which also revolves, so we took the cheap option. After a few drinks, we went back to Skanderbeg square to hang out. This is a very vibrant square at night were lots of people hang about and pass through.

Sadly this was a passing visit and the next day we were heading to the airport to catch a plane to Greece. Though a short fleeting visit, Albania is definitely a place I would recommend for travellers, the beaches look amazing and I am only sad that we missed the coast this time. Tirana has a great vibe and is a great destination for a weekend break for sure. Not a country on many peoples list, but well worth adding.

Kosovo*

So my wife and I arrived at the airport in Pristina and I was a cross between nervous and excited to visit the country, as I did not know what to expect. I am sure like many people all I know about this places is what I saw in the news which mostly was about the war and fight for independence. Before coming I did a bit of reading to get the best understanding I could about the place. So I knew that Kosovo* claimed independence since 2010 and Serbia and some other countries in the region still did not recognise Kosovo* as an independent nation. 

 So at the airport, I was surprised not to get my passport stamped and was also a little disappointed. I asked a policeman who I think may have been part of a UN peacekeeping mission as he was German, he took my passport and told the immigration guy to stamp my passport. This was really cool. So with my stamp, Aini (my wife) and I left the airport to look for a cab. Like many places, there were a bunch of guys offering taxi’s at I’m sure overrated prices, we bargained a price and made our way into this city. We had pre-booked a hotel to stay so went straight there. 

 

Nowadays almost all hotels, hostels and B&B’s are online and if they are half decent they will be reviewed too. A peer review of accommodation can be a great guide. If you have the time to shop around and are happy to take your bag from place to place then do so, also look at couch surfing. If you have the luxury of time this is a better way to get to know a place and find the best bargains, but I had 3 days so preferred to spend my time looking around and seeing sights. So that’s what happened checked in dumped the bag and hit the city. Walking around one of the first things I saw was some graffiti saying “Fuck Serbia”, I think that highlighted the cities feeling toward their neighbour to the north. Also, a little bit further I saw an orthodox church that looked like it had been totally burnt out. I know that Kosovars are mostly ethnic Albanian’s and Muslims, but this still made me feel a little sad to see. The city was not so big, or at least the bits you can touristically see. We walked passed the University, went down the main street and checked out the NEWBORN sign. The sign was to commemorate the independence and now has been covered on all the flags that recognise the new nation. So carrying on we went to get something to eat, hung out in the city, took some photos and checked back into the hotel. 

The next day we hired a car to drive to check out as much as we could. We got up early to start the day. We first drove north to the city of Mitrovica, I wanted to see this town as I knew it was a city that was divided between the Serbian minority in the north and the Albanian majority in the south. What made this town famous or infamous is that it was divided along the river. There is one bridge along the river that (for now) is permanently secured by UN Peace Keeping forces. The bridge is closed to cars but people can walk over no problem. On the Serbian side, there were a lot of flags and anti-Albanian graffiti. Overall the city seemed fine but it was clear that the Serbian minority were not happy about the independence and that the country is run by the Albanian majority. We first walked around the Albanian part of the city grabbing a coffee and then went over to the Serbian side. We felt a little nervous to cross as first but it was fine. Touristically there was not much to see so like on the Albanian side we stopped and went for a coffee. While drinking a coffee one local guy struck up a conversation with us. He seemed really nice and we discussed a little about the city and travel in general. I asked his name and he said “Slobodan but not Milosevic” with a laugh, and I think this kind of summed up the local situation, people are tired of politics and conflict and just want to live their life, while identity is important people just want an easy life. We felt like this glimpse into the political situation had met its end so then got back in the car and headed south to the city of Prizren. 

Getting into the south the landscape started to become very beautiful. Prizren just looks beautiful, lots to see and a really enjoyable city to hang out in. The city still has UN Peace Keeping forces but if you are posted here you must feel like you have won the lottery, the area feels really calm, lots of great coffee shops and places to eat. We were not left with enough time to explore as much as we wanted to but this is a place I would really love to return too and highly recommend. Finally, we had to leave the city and go back to Pristina. 

The next day we were due to travel to Montenegro. From what I had seen online there was a central bus station and that busses went to Montenegro, I also checked with the hotel I was staying in and they confirmed there would be a bus. We got to the central station and there were no busses to Montenegro, oh crap. We had a project there and needed to find a way. I am not sure why, but I saw a bus that said Pec, which is a city in the west and not too far from the border, so I said to Aini “ Let’s take this bus and try our options from there”. Getting into Pec there just happened to be a minibus that goes once a day to the eastern part, had just happened to be travelling to the city we wanted to get to, what were the chances. We crammed onto the minibus with all the people who were buying goods to take over the border as it must be cheaper and we were on our way. The minibus was going through the mountains and although a little scary the landscape was amazing. Finally, we got to the checkpoint where we had to give our passports. The guards seemed a little surprised to see us, but I think it made their day a little interesting at least. We had no issues and was on our way to Montenegro.     

 

   A video I made about crossing the bridge in Mitrovica. 

 

Disclamer:

*Kosovo* – This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

Belarus

2013 was a busy year for me. My wife and I had set up an NGO (Act Global) that aimed to connect people from the world to foster greater peace and understanding between different groups. In this year alone we worked in thirteen different countries over the period of ten months. If you are interested to know more about our organisation follow the link here.

In a mission to complete all the countries in Europe, by chance, a call for participants came up looking for UK participants to join a training course in Minsk, so I jumped at the chance. I sent a mail to the coordination organisation expressing my motivation to join the project and happily I was accepted almost immediately and asked to start applying for my visa. I was so excited but had no idea just how difficult this would be.

I remember it was Monday morning and I called the consulate of Belarus to ask about the process, as I was not able to locate this information online. As I called the first time someone picked up the phone and I asked “am I through to the consulate of Belarus”? I got some fast reply in what sounded like Russian and the phone promptly being hung up. Ok, I thought, let’s try again. The second time someone picked up the phone and hung up right away. What was going on? So I continued to call, but then no one would pick up, this quickly became frustrating. So I called up the coordination organisation and explained what had happened. They told me my choices were to travel to London directly and apply for the visa in person or to apply by post. They also informed me that others from the UK who applied by post were rejected, so I was better off going in person, so I did.

Tuesday morning I was at the consulate where there was a cue, it seemed that most people applying for visas were just looking for transit visas as they were planning to join the Siberian express and had decided to first take the train from the UK to Moscow, other than the Russian visa, the only other visa they needed was to cross Belarus. After an hour or so of waiting, I was finally at the front of the cue. The conversation went a little something like this.

Me: Hello, I tried to call yesterday but I could not get through to anyone.

Representative: How is? If we answer phone we cannot do job.

Me: Is it not part of the job?

He did not answer, and I was not looking to piss him off as I was trying to get a visa here. So the project I was trying to join started the Saturday of this week, so I was hoping to get an express visa and was thinking they might do a one-day service. Not at all, when asking the conversation went a little something like this.

Me: Do you have an express service

Representative: нет (no in Russian)

Me: I need to be there by this weekend, is the zero percent chance you could do an express service?

Representative: Minus one, not even zero.

Me: Ok, so how long is the process?

Representative: Three days.

Me: Great, so I can collect on Friday?

Representative: нет, closed Thursday.

Me: Closed, what for?

At this point, I could feel myself just getting frustrated, so I just left and would need to wait for the result. I called the coordination organisation and explained the situation, I told them I don’t know if I will be able to go or not, and if I can I will be late, they said this was fine. So I waited a week to see.

The next Monday I was back in London and I arrived early to the consulate. Again a cue and a bit of a wait. Finally I got to the front and I was given my passport and it had the visa. Oh my god! I was with my wife and she would also be travelling with me, so we had experienced this process together. We got out of the consulate and said, “right we need to find some tickets to fly today”. We went to a nearby coffee shop, sat down and looked at flights. Flights direct to Minsk were now extortionate prices and we had a limited budget allocation to travel. Ok, let’s think about this I said. I pulled up Google maps and looked at what would be the easiest ways to get to Minsk. Belarus borders Poland and Lithuania and there are plenty of low cost flights to both countries, so we started looking at which were the cheapest that we could fly today. We found a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania, which would get us in that night. So the plan was this, we would fly to Vilnius, stay the night and get the train in the morning to Minsk. We explained this to the coordination organisation letting them know we would be an additional day late for the project, but they were fine with it. So this is what we did, we flew to Vilnius, stayed in a hotel close to the station and went to get a train in the morning (Vilnius blog here). Coming to the station I asked the lady if we could buy a one-way ticket to Minsk, she said sure but questioned if we really wanted to go there. This was not the best sign. Anyway, we got our tickets and off we went.

The train was great, one of these old style soviet trains. For me in the region of the former soviet union, the trains are such a great way to travel and people seem to really come out of their shells on these trains. The train took about three hours and was a peaceful ride over some beautiful flat plains. I was a little nervous when the border control came, but them guys are quite serious looking in most places, so there were no real problems.

Arriving into Minsk we were really surprised by how grand the station was and the epic buildings outside. Wow, where have we arrived too? We were picked up by a representative of the coordination partner hosting the project and taken to a large house just outside the city limits. The building was some kind of homestay for orthodox monks, which had been rented to the organisation for a week and we were the only guests. It was very pleasant and my wife and I had our own private room, and in the basement of the building was a banya (the Russian version of a sauna), because I guess the winters are cold and even monks like to sauna. The other participants on the project were from Moldova, Ukraine, Italy, Turkey and us from the UK. As a group, we were spending the week looking at and discussing areas of social inclusion. As a result, we went and visited a number of institutions in the city who were working with disadvantaged groups due to either physical disabilities or social and financial barriers, overall the project was very interesting and it was great to meet with people and hear about some of their realities. We also bonded well with some of the participants from the other countries and had a few late nights drinking and chatting. But from all the group we really got on with the facilitator Olga, who became and still is a good friend today.

We had a couple of tours around the city and I can genuinely say that Minsk is a very impressive, people are poor and they do struggle with what they have, but the buildings, green spaces and café’s and bars are all very nice. On a couple of days we had in the city we walked around for hours and explored a lot, exhausting but great. On one of these days, we also passed the KGB building. It is illegal to photograph any government buildings, but I managed to take this sneaky picture that was my facebook banner for some time. Sometimes it feels cool to live a little dangerously, however tragic this is ;).

KGB Head Quarters, Minsk

The city is big with long streets and impressive buildings, some of the highlights for me were walking by the river, the main church by the river, hanging out in some of the cool cafés, and passing some little-hidden spots which can only be shared by true locals.

After the project, we hung around a little longer and Olga took us to her families apartment. In comparison to western standards, this appeared quite small in a huge concrete tower block. But the reality in the former soviet union is very different. We have to remember that people were allocated space by need, as most people live in the same situation. So our own concepts of how people are living do not translate to the local realities. This is not to say that people do not struggle, they do. Nevertheless, the place was very cosy and we sat for a drink before exploring the city once again with Olga. Going with her was also very pleasant as we got to see some of the residential areas of the city, something that we would not have seen had we come as just a tourist.

Belarus is a strange country, it is definitely run by a strong authoritarian leader, and people’s freedom does have some limitations, but opinions are very divided about the president and his popularity as a leader. I have now worked for a number of years with people from Belarus and am almost always inspired by their energy and enthusiasm to just get on and do things, and this is felt in the city with the young population.

It seems that Belarus is becoming a lot more open these days and for many countries, it is possible to get a visa on arrival. Although for me the visa process was a nightmare, visiting the city was incredible and this was made all that more incredible because of my friend Olga. Minsk is a great city to explore off the beaten track and you will be surprised just how magnificent the city is.

Lithuania

So I have physically been in Lithuania and stayed the night, but I would say that this was a bit of a cheat visit, as my only purpose at this time was to catch the train to Belarus.

I flew directly to Vilnius, stayed in a hotel Central and close to the train station and took the train the next day to Minsk. When I went to the station and asked for a one-way ticket the lady did look at me strangely and asked if I was sure I wanted to go there. It was not the best sign.

What I briefly saw of Vilnius was beautiful and I will need to return to do this trip properly.

Latvia

This was only a day transit as I was on my way to Georgia. I had booked a strange flight from London that kept me overnight in Denmark and gave me a whole day to explore Riga. Of course, it was not a very practical flight, but I wanted to see both places, even if it was brief.

My flight arrived in the morning, and my luggage was going straight through to Tbilisi, so with just a light backpack, I was able to discover Riga. Accompanied by my wife we took a cab to the city centre and started by walking some of the cobbled streets in the old town. It was a bit of a cold day, but the streets still had a romantic feel about them. As we carried on we soon arrived in an open square with some nice traditional looking eating-places, this was the perfect place to take breakfast and shelter a bit from the cold. It had a nice ambience and we stayed here for a while.

Later we did a little more exploring of the streets, walked by the river and went to one of the main public parks, which was lovely. Again it started to get cold and we were told that one of the highlights of the city was to see the panorama view from the Radisson Blu hotel, so we decided to go there and have some hot drinks.

It was very nice and as the sun was setting it felt very romantic to see all the city and the lights come on. As this was happening a group of British lads arrived who were sitting close to us, drinking and shouting off about how cheap the drinks were and how fit the birds are (this means the attractiveness of women). This did not spoil our time there, but as a Brit, it did make me feel a bit embarrassed, but it is what it is.

So shortly after our time was up and we had to head to the airport to take our flight, it was a short and sweet introduction, and only allowed us to dip out toe into what Latvia is, but at least I got to see and experience something.