I had a great stay at Hostel Anton in Montenegro, it’s the best backpackers gaff I have ever stayed in – FACT. It was like a hippy retreat and a special community of travellers. The staff were so friendly and welcoming, they didn’t have space for me when I arrived (I didn’t pre-book) but the lovely Portuguese hostess managed to find me a bed at short notice. I was planning to take a couple of days rest and really wanted to stay here another night but decided to crack onto Albania and take a coupe of days rest in Turkey (in retrospect I wish I had taken it in Montenegro instead of Istanbul). So I left Hostel Anton with a heavy heart and headed toward the Albanian border.
As I crossed from one Balkan state to another I saw an office to buy insurance but decided not to get any this time (I had no choice in Slovenia, or later Turkey, as they keep your passport until you prove you have bought some) . But the passport control bods didn’t say anything this time so I thought I’d chance it, I was only planning to stay 2 days, pretty much driving straight through. I wasn’t 5 minutes into this new country when I saw my first police checkpoint. SHIT, I thought, here we go…first fine of the trip. What excuse shall I give, I’ve always got the ignorant traveller routine and I don’t understand gig. I’ve got all the time in the world to play dumb, they’ll get fed up before me and probably let me off with a warning. If not I can say I’ll buy insurance in Tirana, the capital.
As I approached the checkpoint, they waved me on… well that was unexpected. Maybe they can’t be arsed with bikers? I was already apprehensive about Albania, I don’t know why, I have no reason to be, I think it’s just because I knew NOTHING about this place. So I carried on, thinking to myyself, oh wellat least there won’t be another for a while, maybe I’ll get lucky? not 10minutes passed and there was another. Shit, bound to get stopped this time. I’m just not that lucky. Well as I approached they were searching a van and I just went through. Sweet, I thought, two for two. not 30 minutes and there was another, no vehicles in front of me, they’re bound to stopme this time. I dropped my speed and kept my head forward… Nothing, I go straight through unhindered
The next 3 or 4 checkpoints, and they’re searching vans and lorries again. Noticing what I think is a pattern, maybe there only searching goods vehicls for contraband? I carry on, the spped limit says 50,which I assume is still kmh, but nobody and I mean nobody is sticking to it, so nor do I. I’m travelling at about 60-70mph and becoming more comfortable. The rozzers aren’t interested in me. I’m coming up fast on a car and van when I see another checkpoint and I decide to slow down and holdback behind until we are all past the police before I overtake. Unfortunately for the car in front, he decided to overtake and was stopped by the police.
With my confidence growing and feeling more secure, I go through the checkpoints giving the police a cheeky wave as I pass by. To my surprise, and their double take, they wave back. They’re not so bad. I finally get into Tirana and the GPS takes me to where the hostel is supposed to be but nothing. No problem, I read there were two locations so I programme in the second one and head out. The first was bad enough as the GPS didn’t have many of the little roads around the capital. Nevertheless, I head out of town the 15-20 miles and miss my turning, having to go another 7 miles out of my way to get back. But I see a gap in the barrier and nip through it when I see two different looking coppers standing about. They’re not the usual police I’ve seen at checkpoints, these fellas have sidearms and look more bad ass.
I decide to stop and ask them if they know where this hostel is but they clearly have no idea. I have some directions and landmarks so I try to communicate the nearest landmarks: a mosque and a reservoir. They point out the mosque but I can’t see it. So I ask the fella who seems more communicative if he drives he says yes so I ask him to take me and I’ll follow. They both look at each other contemplating whether to or not, obviously bored the main guy makes a call and off we go. Not 2 miles down the road and we stop for them to get out and ask some locals. Great, clearly this aint going to be quick, they haven’t a clue where I’m talking about… As a last resort I bring up the map of the alleged hostel on my phone using google maps to show him where it’s supposed to be. Surely this will speed things up. He’s bound to know where it is now.
He asks to take the phone in the car while I follow, shit, what should I do, he’s a stranger, albeit a cop, asking me to give him my £400 phone. Trust him I say to myself, whats the worst that’ll happen? Its pay as you go and it only has about a fivers worth of credit, which probably won’t last long on the Albanian tariff. I hand over the phone, part of me thinking, this could actually work or it might open some other door of opportunity. He drives off and I follow. Twice we take a turn that leads to a dead end. We ask a local and hehas no idea about this place. I keep trying to emphasise that it’s not a hotel but a hostel and it’s probably just looks like a house. Still nothing.
We drive away and stop again to ask some other local people who also have no idea where this place is. I’m starting to think this place doesn’t exist myself, at least not at the address’ I have. Kids start to gather round the bike and asking the usual questions, my name, where I’m from and where I’m going. The main cop phones his friend who speaks English and later turns out to know Peterborough. We chat about the hostel and that I need a cheap place to stay. He asks how cheap, and knowing he’s probably going to suggest somewhere, I tell him 30 Euros. It turns out his mate has a hotel and I can stay there. The main copper likes to say “no problem” and on more than one occasion says I could just stay with him. Cool, this is turning out to be quite a story in the making, the sort I’ve been hearing and reading about the last 18 months from various adventurers.
We drive off and stop at a cafe, I’m skint,I have not drawn out any cash, but that doesn’t matter as they buy me a coffee. I’m getting quite dry now as I’d drank my platypus empty. I had water in my pannier but that was for when I camped if I couldn’t find the hostel. I didn’t really know what was going on but these guys seemed to be organizing something and I had now just resolved to go with the flow. It turned out that we were waiting for their shift to finish and then they would take me to there friends exclusive hotel, after they had taken me to a cash machine that is. Considering I speak zero Albanian and they speak very little English we actually conversed quite well. That’s when I discovered that they were in actual fact special police, the equivalent, they say, of SWAT in the US. This is later confirmed, at least in my mind, when Ermir, the main copper, shows me his tactical assault vest and balaclava.
We carry on chatting for the next couple of hours as the sun goes down. I ask them if they want to go out tonight for some food and a drink and now things are starting to come together. We eventually head off to get cash and then onto the hotel where I unpack the bike, lock it up and cover it up. but it has secure parking so I’m happy. We head up to the room and its lush. I noticed at reception that it was priced at 90 euros, I was getting it for 30 euros. As soon as I walked in the room the air conditioning hit me and I thought I had died and gone to chilly heaven. I had a quick wash, got changed into some fresh clobber and went downstairs to meet Ermir who was already in his civvies. We headed off to pick up Fisnik who we had dropped off before coming to the hotel so he could get changed into some civvies as well.
We head off in the car to this roadside diner and sit outside, to my relief they’re no longer serving food, the place didn’t look that great so we headed off again. This time we turned off down some dark roads, I was completely lost,I had no idea where I was or where I was being taken. If I did not trust these guys I could easily have thought they were going to rob me and or gang rape me, LOL. We finally arrived at this restaurant taverna, which was clearly only frequented by locals, not a tourist in site. I’ve struck gold I thought, then I was greeted by this gorgeous Albanian hostess in some traditional regalia and things went from good to great. We took a tale and looked through the menu as the band played.
Not sure what to have Ermir took me to the back of this lively open plan restaurant to what can only be described as a butchers counter where he order a bunch of different meats and we returned to the table. A few minutes later the waiter brings this huge tube of beer and nested it into this pump device on the table. Inside this 2m long tube was a core of ice that kept the beer ice cold. No sooner had the waiter set it up did I start pulling us all beers. Then Ermir’s friend on the phone arrived and now the party was four. We clinked glasses and toasted to Anglo-Albanian relations. The waiter shortly returned, arms full with a feast fit for a king. All my senses were on overdrive to witness the array of gorgeous food we had just received: bread, salad, grilled cheese, and a selection of freshly grilled meats with potatoes and wedges of lemon. They even brought a plate of fresh chips, homeade stylee. I wish I’d had the clarity of thought to take some pictures but I was deep in the moment.
We ate, drank, smoked and chatted merrily for the next few hours until it was time for my new friends in the special police to call it a night. It was gone midnight and they were at work the following day. So I got a couple of pictures and we said our goodbyes.After exchanging information Emir’s friend drove me back to my hotel where I went to exceedingly satisfied and happy that I’d asked two complete strangers for help. I now have two new people in my life that I am happy to call friends and a story that I will be dining out on for the rest of my life.