|Travel in a time of coronavirus
I started this blog as a celebration of travel and this crazy, fabulous planet, but with Covid-19 closing borders for months, possibly years, any new adventures are on hold for the foreseeable future. In the meantime I’ll be delving into my diaries and scanning my old travel slides to bring you some stories and photos from the past 25 years.
Albania in 1999 was a wild, exhilarating place.
Less than a decade earlier this nation of three million people had emerged blinking into the harsh light of capitalism after decades under a bizarre, isolationist brand of communism.
Just two years earlier the country plunged into lawlessness and looting after the collapse of a popular Ponzi scheme wiped out the life savings of much of its population, an episode that explains the wrecked infrastructure in some of these photos.
And less than two months before my visit tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians poured across the border to escape war in neighbouring Kosovo.
But, alongside the squalor and apparent hopelessness, it was also a place of stunning landscapes, rich history and extraordinary generosity. I reserved a section of my diary just to list the gifts people gave me, but it didn’t take long to lose track.
In just the first two days people gave me three bananas, four doughnuts, one pack of Nato-brand chewing gum, five cups of coffee as thick and sweet as treacle, a bicycle for an afternoon, a book signed by the author, and a large amount of local cognac.
These photos, taken during three weeks in 1999, capture a little of that era.
I haven’t been back since — it’s pretty much at the top of my wishlist once borders reopen — but from stories I’ve heard and photos I’ve seen a lot has changed since then.
The cities have been cleaned up, the looted manhole covers have been replaced, and destroyed hotels and businesses (including the factory in these photos) have been rebuilt.
Albania has even managed to cast off the title of Europe’s poorest country, a dubious honour which now goes to Moldova.
(In case you’re interested, Albania is now ranked number 4. As of 2021 the continent’s poorest nations are Moldova, Ukraine, Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.)
If you’re hungry to find out more about this fascinating country, you can dip into a travel story I wrote for the Listener way back in 2002 called Last bus to Shqipëria, or just meander through these photos. They’re old-school slides digitised on a cheap flatbed scanner so the colours and sharpness aren’t quite right, but I’m sure you’ll get the picture.
Click on the previews to see the full-size images.