A few weeks ago I happened to see a comment on a travel blog. Someone had written in asking for ideas for their honeymoon, and someone had commented and suggested Albania. The comment was only a couple of lines long, but this is just exactly the sort of place I'm always raring to go to, and it caught my imagination. I, probably like many of you, think of Albania - if I think of it at all - as a bleak, communist hole. But I hopped on to Google and was confronted first with the (obvious) fact that it's right there on the Med above Greece and across from Italy, which screams sea, sand and sunshine. Then I looked a bit further and liked what I saw - not too touristy yet, apparently some nice beaches exist amongst others that are skyscraper-ridden communist disasters, there are some great archaeological sites etc. etc.
So anyway, before committing myself any further, I headed to Amazon and ordered the first travel narrative book I saw - Land of Eagles: Riding through Europe's Forgotten Country by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. It got some good reviews, and apparently Hanbury-Tenison is something of a doyen of English travel writers, so I overlooked the fact that they were doing it on horseback. I've never been a horsey type (perhaps surprisingly, logistics aside - I was a very Lisa Simpson-ish kid in every other way), but that didn't seem an important factor when selecting a travel book.
However, as soon as I opened it up and saw their route map, I realised it wasn't quite what I was looking for. The vague idea I have in my head (after about an hour's internet search) is to fly in and out of the capital, Tirana, and to visit a few spots on the coast and the big archaeological site down south. They are taking their horses trekking through the mountains in the interior, with a stated goal of not setting foot in a city the whole trip. Not very me.
Well, that would still be okay if it was an evocative guide to the history, people, culture and landscape. It started out promisingly enough, with some brief but interesting background on the history of the country, the horrors of Enver Hoxha's regime and subsequent Balkan Wars, but for the most part I've gotta say it's just dull. He goes into great detail a lot of the time, but about stupid stuff like how his "much younger" wife divided all their stuff into four distinct boxes, and how that made it easy to find stuff and quick to pack up in the morning. Tons of stuff about the difficulties they have following whatever bridle trail it is they're on, getting lost in the scrub, horses balking at crossing rivers and so forth, none of which is really of any interest to anyone not planning the exact same horse trek.
Here's a sample from the page I happen to be up to:
I had photocopied in colour all the maps, so that I could give our driver an identical map to the one I was navigating by. In theory that would mean that we would always be able to find each other. But it didn't work out that way. We arranged to meet them where the clearly marked side road to Surroj peeled off. There we planned to enjoy the packed lunches with which the hotel in Kukes had provided us and which, to save them from being jiggled about and pulped on the horses, we had put in the Landcruiser. We reached the junction but there was no one there. They had either driven past or, knowing that we would be taking it, decided to go down the side track and continue until it ran out and became suitable only for horses. There was no signal on the mobile. It turned out they had driven past, and so we missed out on lunch.
Bored yet? It's certainly not inspiring me to visit. Where's the local colour? The crazy old man who, I dunno, drags you in to his house, tries to make you marry his daughter and tells you tales of fighting the Italians in World War I - or something. Where's the glorious descriptions of majestic mountains and soaring eagles? Where's something your average traveller, who's not going to start off on their voyage with champagne provided by the Acting British Ambassador (I kid you not) can use? It's a bit like reading someone's journal in which they've written down every single thing that ever happened to them. Well, I am 72 pages in since picking it up this evening, so I can say one thing for it, that it's a relatively quick read (over 100 pages to go though). Might have to invest in a guidebook or something to help me decide whether Albania 2012 is really a winner.