Not Durres

Like London has Brighton, Tirana has Durres. A quick 45 minute drive down a decent motorway gets you out of the city and to the sea.

The only problem with Durres is that it’s awful.

Rapid and unsympathetic over-development has created a wall of apartment buildings and hotels that loom over the beach. The port built to make the most of Durres’ natural harbour pollutes the water. And the historical significance of this former capital city is over-looked by swarms of summer visitors. You can get away with a pleasant off-season stroll but if you want a decent day trip to the beach – it’s not Durres that you want.

It’s Lalzit Bay.

The weather has been spectacular lately – and unseasonably warm. Unfortunately it’s still too early in the season for the hotel up the road from our house to have filled its swimming pool for the summer (hurry up!). So we decided to find an alternative beach option and headed out of the city on the newly re-sealed Tirana-Durres motorway towards Lalzit Bay. (Take the exit at Maminas and follow the road north).

Thanks to it being the favourite getaway of Albania’s politicians, this expansive beach is easily accessed by a surprisingly good-quality road, and is mercifully undeveloped. Hotels are not permitted! Instead, there are a couple of private villa complexes and a splattering of beach front cafe/restaurants. Unlike most of Albania’s coastline, it’s a lot of very undisturbed beachfront. Brilliant! Obviously this is Tirana’s worst-kept secret day-trip so the weekend traffic in the summer months is out of control, but seeing as we’re happily unemployed, we’ve decided this will be our summer mid-week beach getaway!

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After a very pleasant few hours on the beach we headed off to explore nearby Cape Rodoni. This gorgeous peninsula offers stunning sea views out both sides of the car. We followed the road to the gates of the park (100 lek entrance fee per car), home to the remains of a castle constructed by the Albanian hero Skanderberg in 1467. Much of the castle has now slipped into the sea. But it is well-worth the 20 minute walk (or 5 min boat ride) just for the views. It’s a shame though, that once again,  a site of historical importance is seriously blighted by litter. Sigh.

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Also in the park (by a small beach and fishing wharf) is the beautifully restored St Anthony church, a remnant of the Franciscan community. The church now owns the land (the park entrance fees help maintain it). And apparently once the summer kicks in properly, the park becomes a popular venue for summer parties!

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It was a great little day trip from Tirana. Here’s another great (non-beach-based) day trip easily taken from Tirana.

Spring

It’s one of those things, isn’t it, that the time between making a decision to move on from something, and the actual moving on from it, is the killer… it feels that nothing about where you are now is good and everything about where you will be soon is dreamy. And it’s a drag.

And boy have we been feeling that lately!

Not that everything is bad, I mean it’s Albania in the spring. It’s gorgeous blossoms and sunshine and green – it’s the best season! But we have really been experiencing the frustrations of living here. And it’s been hard to pull ourselves out of it!

Lots of people say there are bad things about living here. People drink coffee all day and complain about the lack of jobs, the lack of money, the poor quality of the politicians, about Albania’s multitude of problems. And we sit in coffee shops with friends and theorise about how the biggest problem with Albania is Albanians. We sit with the arrogance of outsiders and suggest that the hangover of a harsh dictatorship may not excuse, but does explain, the pervading culture within the country. But mostly we balk at the size of the problem. I mean, where do you even start with a country like Albania?

Pretty much the best thing we’ve done in the past few months has been investing some time at the farm working on the grapes. My husband’s family have three fields, two of which are mostly grapes which have been pretty much untouched since his parents moved to the nearby town 10 years ago.

So back in February in the deep of winter we spent five days pruning. I learnt how to prune a vine to encourage growth not just for this summer, but in preparation for the summer after. I learnt that it’s all ‘less vine more grape’. Be cruel to be kind. And all of those clichés. For most of the time it seemed pointless. The vines seemed completely dead. We pulled out a lot of them. It was hard physical work and very satisfying. I love the farm so much and to feel like I could actively, positively contribute to such a special place was rewarding but we left two fields of stumpy looking vines and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much.

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Before the pruning began

So this month we finally made it back to the farm. I said earlier that spring is the best season, and it really looks its best at the farm. I was so excited to see the grapes. All those dead stumps had been overtaken by new branches and leaves – and baby grapes!

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Baby grapes!

They looked amazing! And following the rule of ‘less vine more grape’ we had to spend another couple of days cutting them back again. All those poor little branches that had worked so hard to grow out of the dead stump ended up as pig fodder! The crop is looking good… there is a lot of fruit there… I can’t wait to see it grow and to be there at harvest time to pick our grapes and make us some wine!

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Sometimes Albania feels a little like the fields of dead stumps. Just a lot of not very much and some serious scepticism that it will ever be something else. My hope of growth comes from seeing the impressive level of innovation amongst younger Albanians. In the absence of opportunity, the best of Albania are those out there making their own opportunities. But it’s hard work for them. And many are actively looking to leave – through whatever means they can find. I recently saw published figures from the Home Office in the UK that Albania is 5th in the list of nationalities applying for asylum in the UK.

But then, as a friend said to me this morning, Albania has progressed further in the last 20 years than any other country in Europe. And its worth remembering that whenever it all gets a bit much.

Spring is the best season in Albania and with local elections only weeks away I can only hope that Albanians start looking for leaders who are going to start encouraging spring growth.