So I cycled up the steep, steep hill from the lovely lake Ohrid near Struga in Macedonia, surrounded by clear, mountain air and dense, lush forest, and eventually, after a few swear words and a lot more sweat, I reached nearly a thousand metres above sea level, where lay the border with Albania. I got through the officialdom in minutes - there was hardly anyone else there - and I was in Albania. Finally, Albania! Of all the places on this trip, Albania was possibly the one I most wanted to see because you never hear anything about it. It never wins anything. I'm not even sure it ever enters anything. What was it going to be like?
Normally when you cross a border you don't really notice a change in your surroundings. OK, the houses might become a little shabbier or a little grander, the people a little better or worse dressed, the prostitutes fitter or fatter. But cross into Albania and suddenly the thick forest was replaced with yellowing fields with the odd shrub, as though I'd jumped a thousand metres higher and I was now above the tree line. And the air was bluer, and not in a good way. It couldn't be the heat haze; it was still only eight in the morning. Was it pollution? All the photos I took looked like a crisis-abandoned travel agent's window display. Everything had gone cyan.
Coming down the hill from the border I noticed a large dog in the road. That's fairly normal. You always see the odd dog. Then I turned to my right and saw what must be ten or fifteen of 'em in a pack. Luckily they were all looking in the opposite direction, maybe devouring the last cyclist who came this way. I pedalled on and whizzed past before they could notice me.
Down and down I went. Eventually I came to people. The first person I passed was a twelve year old boy. At the top of his voice he sang out to me in English: "I love you sooooooo much!" He even did X-Factor wannabe arm gestures. I laughed. He laughed. But I kept cycling. Freak.
And then there were the hoses. If you know an Albanian and you're wondering what to get him or her for Christmas then my advice would be to buy a hose. They bloody love them. I must have counted twenty or thirty in a minute or two, erected nozzle up, pointlessly spraying water. Never into a field, mind. No, just on to a bit of tarmac, making a big, unnecessary puddle. My mum loves a water feature. I think that's what it was. Oh, you could watch a hose for hours! Sometimes they even held the hoses and sprayed them randomly at things that never needed water - like a kerb - just for the hell of it. Crazy Albanians. Maybe there was nothing on telly today. Or maybe it was another soddin' Norman Wisdom film.
I'd heard the road surfaces here were awful but so far they've been at least as good as Greece's. A bigger problem is that the roads aren't wide enough for the amount of traffic. The road from Elbasan, a major town, to Tirana, the capital, is no wider than a British country lane. And after descending back to nearly sea level it rose up again to near one thousand metres. Driving in Albania is slow going. Or it should be. They just gun it, the mad fuckers.
Once I'd got to the top of the hill I noticed a burning smell, and then I noticed smoke and bits of ash in the air, and then I noticed forest fires just metres from the side of the road. In fact, I think the road was acting as a fire break in some places. There were tons of 'em. Only little ones as yet but still. If only there'd been loads of people with hoses.
And then I descended into Tirana. There's nothing much I can say about Tirana that might make you want to come. I mean, it's not awful. Not really. The river that's marked on the map is only three metres wide and is of a similar composition to the liquid that escaped from the burst drains in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar after a sudden downpour when I was there. But if you are going to blow your disposal income on a city break then my advice would probably be - oh, I don't know - Barcelona or Prague or, well, anywhere. I'm glad I came but I will be happier to leave. Not Albania - the countryside is lovely, if bluish - but Tirana is a traffic-filled hole with little to stare at and go 'Ahhhh!' You can always watch the cars dangerously overtaking each other and go 'Arggggh!" but that's not the same.
Did you know that beards were banned in Albania for a long time? Apparently, Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator who ruled this place for about forty years, didn't like 'em. He could probably only grow a weird, patchy, diseased-inmate one like my brother. (Just to be clear, my brother can't grow a beard. He's not a diseased inmate. Or maybe he is. I mean, I haven't spoken to him for a month or two.) And I've now got a great, big, stupid beard again. Apart from the odd bit of stubble, no one else here has a beard. I feel like a rebel.
I'm not a rebel. I'm just a pink-headed, podgy, forty-two year old who Albanian boys like to serenade. Saddo.