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Mr Rama is welcoming and gracious. I congratulate him on the success he is making of his country. “It is difficult,” he replies with a sigh. He asks solicitously after his friend David Cameron, expressing regrets at his resignation and hoping he returns to politics. We discuss Brexit, which we both regard as a disaster. He looks forward to the day when Albania will join the EU. I am surprised when told this could be as long as seven years hence. Surely it should be sooner.

Later I visit the Hoxha “bunker”, a museum to the dictator and his atrocities located in a complex of bomb-proof concrete cellars constructed beneath Tirana’s main square to house the Ministry of the Interior in the event of nuclear attack. I am so sickened by what I see and read that I have to leave before the tour is complete, vowing that if it ever comes within my power, I will drag Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow-travellers through these crepuscular catacombs of infamy to show them just what evil deeds their fellow disciples of Marx perpetrated in furtherance of their perverse ideology.

Dinner that night is at Sofra e Ariut, literally “The Bear’s Table”, an elegant restaurant in the grounds of the palace of the pre-war King Zog. The meal is excellent and the Albanian wine equally so, especially the red. I ask for the bill. By now I have worked out that there are approximately 120 lek to the euro. We are five, and the bill is 10,000 lek. Despite the effects of the wine I calculate this to be 80 euro, one quarter of what the cost would be in France or Italy. I am so astonished I check it again. I was right the first time.

Next day I set out for Durres, Albania’s main port and gateway to Italy via daily ferries to Bari and Ancona. Deciding to go by train, and the station only being a short distance from the hotel according to the map, I set out on foot. Tirana’s traffic lights are the best I have ever seen. Both pedestrians and vehicles have not only red and green lights to rely on, but also a second-by-second countdown to when the lights will change. Drivers and walkers alike have no excuse to be impatient. The countdowns, in red for “wait” and green for “go”, tell them exactly how long they have before the lights change. It is a superb system, which should be adopted in every European city, especially London.

I check myself. “Hang on, isn’t this country notorious for its gangsters? Am I safe, walking the streets of Tirana?” Well, in truth, I have never felt safer. There are no shady individuals hovering in doorways and alleys. I am not jostled by threatening youths in baseball caps. I don’t feel the need to clamp my hands to my pockets, lest crones creep up from behind to pick them. Indeed, I’d rather be strolling in the streets of Tirana than in parts of London or Paris.

I reach the site of the station, only to find it has been demolished to make way for a vast boulevard redolent of the Communist era. A hoarding states this is to be built by a Kuwaiti company at a cost of 26 million euro. I can’t help thinking that such a sum would be far better spent on improving the railways. The new “temporary” station is 12 kilometres away. I take a taxi there — a shack in the middle of an industrial estate — only to learn the one and only train to Durres departed four hours earlier. “You must sort out your railways and connect them to the European network,” I advised Mr Shkodra presciently earlier that day. Railways are essential to a European nation and, if not addressed quickly, the lack of a good rail system will be a major handicap to Albania’s future development.

Durres bears hallmarks of the pre-war Italian occupation in some fine buildings, especially churches, both Orthodox and Catholic. Otherwise it is as unimpressive as any other port city. But as I board my flight home, I am already looking forward to returning to Albania, and doing what I can to help these brave and deserving people iron out the remaining creases in their country, bringing it finally into the premier league of smaller countries. It hasn’t far to go.
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nfw
February 4th, 2018
3:02 AM
Refused an entry stamp by a typical public servant. If it had been somebody in commerce who realised he/she depended upon the goodwill of customers, it would have been "How many?". But no, your typical public servant has neither the imagination nor flair for doing such a small task for a tourist who would then possibly talk the place up and who knows, encourage more tourists, foreign exchange and wealth. Nope, the opening sentence sums up public servants (sic), they who have no concept of making their own country better but serving themselves.

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