Here is the third installment in contributing writer Robert Waite’s literary tour of what I call “countries that I really want to visit but haven’t yet.”
I came tantalizingly close to the latter a few years ago while on a cruise that stopped in Corfu, Greece, just 22 miles (35 kilometres) from Albania. Ferry boats heading to Albania beckoned, but the cruise ship — during just a four-hour stop in Corfu — would not wait.
Longtime readers of this blog might also recall that I’m something of a travel obsessive, so I can well relate to Bob’s longtime fixation on getting to this once-forbidden country. But it took decades and didn’t come easily…
By Robert Waite
Tirana, Albania – How does mere interest evolve into obsession? How do you start out being curious about a country, Albania … then fascinated … and ultimately, obsessed?
My interest was piqued at university. Back in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, I had two professors – Geoffrey Hosking at the University of Essex and William J. Fishman at the University of Wisconsin – who were world-renowned experts on communist regimes. Each, however, admitted knowing almost nothing about communist Albania or its forever-leader, Enver Hoxha.
But what really accelerated my fascination with the tiny nation, wedged between Greece and Montenegro on the Adriatic, was a mid-‘70’s stint as a correspondent in Warsaw, Poland, for Pacific News Service. I was working out of the Warsaw Press Building, in a shared office with Bogdan Turek, the legendary UPI Bureau Chief.
Out of the blue – it must have been a slow news day – the topic of Albania came up.
“No western journalist gets into Albania,” said Turek. “If you could do that, it would be a tremendous coup.”
The prospect of an exclusive scoop danced in my head for the remainder of my posting.
So I tried. But the Albanian authorities (whom I petitioned by mail, as there was no formal Albanian Embassy in Warsaw) were unresponsive. I left Eastern Europe more determined than ever. Hell hath no fury like a journalist scorned.
A few years later I was in New York with IBM, running a kind of mini State Department for their World Trade Division. While there I discovered that a co-worker, a man with the unlikely name of Roger Jester, shared my obsession with Albania.
Among other things, he was the only person I had ever met who knew that the name of Albania’s last monarch was King Zog.
We had an on-going bet: whoever could find an Albanian restaurant – in New York; Toronto; LA; wherever – had to treat the other to a dinner. This went on for years.
Roger came closest – one day he found himself in Brooklyn with an Albanian cab driver. “You’re Albanian!” he exclaimed. “Tell me, where I can find an Albanian restaurant.”
The man glanced in his rear view mirror. He then noisily cleared his throat, rolled down the window, and spat. “Albanian food? Albanian food? Why would anyone want Albanian food?”
This ended the great restaurant quest. But I still wanted to get into the country.
More years passed. Hoxha – a leader so secretive and paranoid that he makes Kim Jong-un look sane in comparison – also passed, in 1985. His downfall eventually led to the collapse of the communist government – indeed, it was among the last to topple, in 1991.
It took decades – and the reluctant assent of a skeptical spouse – but I finally came up with a scheme that would take us to Albania’s capital, Tirana. I would cover the Tirana International Film Festival for HuffPost; my wife, Karen, would be my accredited photographer; and we would get there by automobile.
The concept was that we would pick up a new car, an E-Series, at the Mercedes plant in Germany, using the company’s European Delivery Program.
Following a tour of the Mercedes assembly facility and a visit to the Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart, we’d head south. We had thirty days worth of insurance and a GPS system that spoke English – what could possibly go wrong?
As it happened, a lot could go very wrong. We traveled through Austria, then on to Slovenia and Croatia. All was good. Next we came to the Bosnian border. According to the GPS (and my map), barreling through Bosnia seemed the most direct route. However, for some reason the border guards thought entering Bosnia to be a really bad idea. But, not understanding a word they were saying, I insisted. They finally shook their heads, gave up and waved us through.
Once inside Bosnia, I discovered I had entered a land of no return.
It seems I had just inadvertently “exported” the car from the E.U. Once out, you could not go back. If you did, they would seize your car, plus fine you 70 percent of its value.
Despite the fact that we had provided our itinerary in advance, none of this had been explained to us by our North American dealership; by the rather stern Mercedes lady at the presentation center; or by the company that cheerfully sold us a two-week extension on our insurance policy.
We had to figure out a way to get back into the E.U., without anyone noticing we had left.
As it happened, there was a lucky chink in the E.U.’s armor – a coastal border crossing from Bosnia to Croatia that takes you to Dubrovnik. For whatever reason, on this particular afternoon, the customs officers were apparently playing cards and just allowing cars through.
Being back in the E.U. was great, but, as neither Montenegro nor Albania are E.U. countries, we needed a Plan B to actually reach our objective, the Albanian capital of Tirana.
This is where Rick Steves came to the rescue. Steves had recommended a fellow named Roberto de Lorenzo as not only an excellent guide, but as someone who could provide reliable transfers to Montenegro. From there, we could catch a bus to Albania.
That was our Plan B. We ditched our illicit Mercedes in a Dubrovnik underground garage and climbed into Roberto’s car, headed for Kotor. Albania finally beckoned – we were off.
Up Next, Part II in the series — Albanian Travel Dreams Fulfilled
Author Bio: Robert Waite has written on travel for almost 50 years. A former Pacific News Service correspondent in Eastern Europe, he is a professor at Seneca College in Toronto and Managing Partner at Waite + Co., a communications consulting firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto.
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