Last Updated : 30/12/05
Ticking in Tirane
(incorporating kaning in Kosovo!)
by Dave Unpronounceable.
hile I have been scooping in Britain and Ireland since about 1997 officially (that’s when I turned 18!) and 1996 in reality, until 2003 I never ventured any further afield. The principle aim was bashing (for crank report, see here), but always on the lookout for beer. Therefore, this is not a serious suggestion of a ‘beer trip’, as there was often long distances travelled between pubs! After a week of slowly making my way from Praha (at the time the furthest east Easyjet flew), I was in Serbia. I did the overnight from Kraljevo to Bar, which was comfortable enough but bloody cold, and awoke to the most spectacular view I had ever seen – for Eurocranks, this line makes Split look dull, just a shame it’s wired!
Arrival in Bar was 2½ hours late, meaning my move to Shkoder was a little tighter than I’d hoped. I found a taxi driver who spoke English, and he agreed to drive me to the recently-reopened border. I then walked the 100 yards through ‘no mans land’, before finally entering Albania. The Foreign Office website states the Albania charges $10 tax on both entry and exit, and I duly handed over $10. The passport bert gave me a form to fill in, which he then signed, and gave back to me to hand to passport control on my exit. He then summoned a taxi to take me to Shkoder, which gave me just over an hour to cover 15km. However, after 100 yards the paved road finished, and it was dirt track all the way to Shkoder.
We were still making reasonable time, until we got to the bridge by Rozafa Castle. The bridge is single lane, there are no traffic lights, and the locals drive like Italians. By the time we eventually got over the bridge, the train was long gone – the 1215 to Tirane is the last train of the day! The driver took me to exchange some dollars, and I then got a hotel for 1000 Lek (about £5.50), which was basic but comfortable, and after a week of overnights a real bed was most welcome.
I had arranged a taxi the previous night, and sure enough it was waiting for me at 6am when I left the hotel. The run to the station took about 5 minutes. The hotel I stayed at told me there were no hotels near the station, so I was not impressed to find one 2 minutes walk from the shack. The driver tried to ching me $5, but was happy with 500 Lek. He then offered to drive me to Vlore for $100, as that is where I had originally intended to go, but I politely declined as I no longer had time to go there, didn’t want to go by car anyway, and certainly didn’t want to spend $100 when the train would cost under a fiver!
Although the daytime was very hot, the early morning was rather cold – I wouldn’t fancy travelling on these trains in December! The train was empty out of Shkoder, but quickly filled up – at one point the compo was load 12, including 3 children! On the plus side, while the locos are numbered in the T669.1 series, which corresponds to the Czech 771 class, unlike 771s the HSH loks are most definitely not silenced!
At Tirane, I went for a beer, scoring the quite rateable Birra Tirane, something of a result as I’d been told all I would find would be (Turkish) Efes. The beer was available on draught at a burger bar outside the main shack, as well as in bottles. I negotiated for a couple of bottles to take home for some desperate Euro-scoopers I know (with the usual language-barrier problem of explaining I didn’t want them opened, and was happy to pay the bottle deposit), and settled down for the draught version. I had no idea what to expect from an Albanian beer, so was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a rather refreshing pilsner-style beer. The beer was not overly gassy, and there was a good pronounced hop aroma and flavour. Sadly I could only stay for one, as I had to catch the 1320 to Shkoder – again, this is the last train of the day.
Just after leaving Tirane, the train hit a farm truck on a crossing, knocking it over and spilling its load all over the road. Whereas in Britain the loco would be impounded and inspected, the driver drug tested and the line closed for a month for investigation, the driver got out, made sure the front of the loco was ok and carried on! At Milot, the lok wouldn’t restart, so the driver made a phone call. Ten minutes later, a bert came down the road on a donkey, carrying a can of oil. The driver then opened the engine room doors and went to put in some oil, all the time having a cigarette dangling from his mouth!
Various normals tried talking to me, one or two of them with some degree of English. I was asked by a couple of them what religion I am, a question I carefully avoided as I felt a wrong answer could be bad for my health. One bert was standing by the door talking to me when a gust of wind blew his wig off into a field! I returned to Montenegro via the main border at Hani I Hotit, again using a combination of taxis. There are allegedly buses between Podgorica and Shkoder, but I didn’t pass any, and could find no gen at either bus station. This will all be a lot easier if they ever get round to opening the railway line to passengers! The border crossing was easy, and no exit tax was charged – maybe this is only charged if one loses the entry form. A taxi was waiting on the other side of the border, to return me to Podgorica (formerly Titograd – capital of Montenegro).
The following day, I made a short trip to Kosovo, the main attraction being the ex-Norwegian ‘NoHAB’ locos. At the time, it was not possible to make a day trip, so an overnight stay at Hotel Drenica, outside Kosovo Polje shack, was required. Here I scored the local Pejes Pilsner, brewed near Pristina. Unfiltered, this appeared to be bottle conditioned, and I never saw it on draught. It was a fairly typical example of the type, with somewhat less hop flavour than the Birra Tirane. Still, it made for a surreal scene, sat watching Beverley Hills Cop dubbed into Albanian, drinking Kosovan beer, with a Norwegian engine sat outside!
I returned to Albania six months later, this time with company in the form of ‘Redhill’ (a non-scooping crank). We did the same taxi move to the Albanian border. By this stage it was pissing down, and we weren’t best pleased when the driver dropped us in the middle of nowhere, with a few locals glaring at us. We carried on by foot, shortly reaching the border controls. We then got a taxi to Shkoder, which despite the weather was much quicker than last time. Unlike my previous trip, the bridge into town was clear, and we arrived at the shack with time for a couple of beers – Birra Tirane again. This beer seems to be fairly widely available in bars, but rarely in shops, which tend to have only cans of Amstel (brewed under license in Greece for the desperate among you!)
The stock was much better than last time, consisting of ex-OBB opens, with far fewer broken or missing windows, and even some lights. We did the midday train to Vore, for the afternoon train through to Vlore. When we arrived in total darkness at 8pm, we had another ‘what the hell are we doing?’ moment, as we seemed to be in the middle of an unlit shanty town. However, we were soon through this and into the main town, which was well lit and had most amenities, including a cashpoint, though the roads were wet and muddy.
We eventually found a hotel, where the Bert spoke English. We dined at the hotel, and when we asked for beer, Bert told us that the brewery was on site – we’d stumbled on a brew-pub! Cat-fitted as well. It turned out that the Bert had variously lived in the UK and in Hungary (and yet returned to Albania?!) where he had worked for a brewery (I forget which). The beer, named Donauer, was from a recipe he had learnt in Hungary. However, being an Albanian micro, the beer was unfiltered and not highly gassed. Cloudy in appearance, it had characteristics similar to some of the Slovenia micro-brewed lagers I have tried. After our ordeal, the first glass disappeared almost without me noticing it, but I took the time to savour the second. Again the beer was surprisingly hoppy, though I have no idea where Bert would find hops in the dubious end of Albania!
The following morning, we headed back to the shack, narrowly avoiding being savaged by a large flea-ridden shit-machine which we failed to see in the dark. We headed back to Tirane (indirectly), an uneventful journey apart from the train being bricked between Shkozet and Sukth, the windows in front of and behind our compartment being smashed. Back at Tirane, we went to the first hotel we saw, and although it was quite chingy, we couldn’t be bothered to walk around looking for another, and after much haggling agreed on $60 for a twin.
The following morning, we did a fill in move to Vore and back. We had a choice of two trains back, and had to gamble as we knew one of them would form the Shkoder train. The first to arrive was a winner, so we got on and sat with three young ladies, one of whom spoke perfect English. We chatted with her, and she confirmed what we had already worked out, that most people in Albania just want the tourists to come and bring much-needed money into the country. The coastal areas are starting to built their tourist trade, but in other areas the locals are stunned to see foreigners.
When we arrived in Tirane, we went for a burger, and celebrated clearing the Albanian network with a breakfast beer (Birra Tirane again)! We then got some photos, before getting the train back to Shkoder. On the way some Ada went to the bog and got locked in for ages as there was no inside handle!
Overall, I enjoyed both trips to Albania, but like I say, it would not be worth going for the beer alone. The two breweries are 100 miles apart, a journey that takes about 7 hours by train (though for a fare of 80p, what do you expect?!). The country is still mostly a shambles, and the trains are a complete state – almost as bad as Vermin (but more punctual). Vlore is dubious even by Albanian standards, and at times we really did wonder if it was worth it. But for such a massive beer – of course it was!
Vlore : Hotel Martini. Straight ahead from shack, up to end, turn right. Hotel down side alley on right. 10 minutes walk, mostly lit. comfy rooms, en suite, TV. €20 twin. On-site brewery. Cash only
Tirane : Hotel Areela. Out of shack, left, go past sign pointing to hotel, take next right down alley instead. 5 minutes walk. Asked for €70 twin en suite with TV, haggled down to $60. Cash only
Shkoder – there is a hotel by the station. I stayed in Hotel Rozafa, in the town. Single room 1,000 Lek. (£5.50)
Kosovo Polje – Hotel Drenica. Next to station. Single €20, twin/double €30. Bar and restaurant attached. Basic but comfortable rooms, not en suite.