Sunday, September 5, 2010

Lifting the Veil of Albania, with pedals

Toronto Review of International Affairs
18 July 2010

Albania's still a bit rough around the edges, but it has long outgrown its reputation as an isolated and dangerous country. It took a ride across the country by bicycle to find that out.

AT THE MONTENEGRIN/ALBANIAN BORDER - The sun is out for the first time in days, a welcome relief from the crisp December air of the Adriatic that chills central Europe at this time of year. Snow has just begun to cover the peaks of the imposing North Albanian Alps, finally visible in the distance, free of the curtain of cloud that has veiled most of the landscape thus far. The road is newly paved, and to our surprise, perfectly smooth.

But we cycle into Albania with butterflies in our stomachs. It is, after all, Albania - home to a 40-year dictatorship that, until recently, left it as closed off from the world as North Korea is today. We had been vehemently cautioned not to visit, because, as one acquaintance put it, "the Albanians will steal the shirts off your backs." Guide books warned of a lack of medical facilities. It was the wild frontier between East and West, a dark unknown place where, we were told, we would be unimpressed, and possibly, in danger.

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