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New Europe

Day Twenty-three: Durrës

A rail-side toilet 
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A smart lady waits for her husband on the platform at Tirana.
Michael Palin - New EuropeArdi talks about his country. He's weary about its image abroad, as a haven for criminals, sex-traffickers and the like.

'You haven't seen many criminals, have you?'

I smile and shake my head.

Ardi spreads his arms. 'I would feel safer in Tirana walking at night, than in Amsterdam or Paris or London, you know.'

For him the bigger problem is not criminal gangs but the exodus of skilled Albanians, the brain drain that has seen so many intellectuals and qualified people leaving to work abroad, in Greece, Italy and the United States. Until they come back Albania will always lag behind the rest of Europe.

We reach the outskirts of the capital. Homes are built right up against the line, and the train horn is in constant use. The old-fashioned houses, packed tight together with small gardens smothered in vines, could be in the countryside. Men play chess reclining on a grassy verge inches from the train.

In the Stygian gloom of Tirana Central the few passengers dismount. I watch an elderly man in a black suit shuffle slowly across the track to relieve himself by a fence, whilst his wife, equally smartly dressed and holding an umbrella, stands on the railway line and waits for him.

With its pervasive smell of rotting rubbish, and complete absence of any facilities whatsoever, Tirana Central is not a place to linger. Even the station approach is a gentle upward slope of mud, which we pick our way through with some care only to find ourselves, quite abruptly, in the middle of big city noise, light and bustle.

We walk the length of Zog One Boulevard, named after the king who led Albania into the Second World War, on Hitler's side, but spent most of it in a private suite at the Ritz in London. By the time we've reached the wide and rather grand space of Skanderbeg Square, in which every other car is a Mercedes, memories of Albania's dark, neglected railway are beginning to blur.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twenty-three: Durrës
  • Country/sea: Albania
  • Place: Tirana
  • Book page no: 59

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