Howard Davies on the crazy world of Albanian politics

The MT Diary: Howard Davies gets trapped in the former German Democratic Republic and sails into Albania just in time for a general election.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 16 Jul 2013

Last month's nick of time escape from Belarus should have taught me a lesson about getting trapped in eastern Europe, but a couple of weeks later I was in the former German Democratic Republic, which proved even harder to leave.

It all started well enough, with an on-time flight to Berlin and an efficient train to Leipzig. I was speaking at a transport conference, organised by the OECD.

Since we haven't built a runway in the south-east of the UK since the Red Army rolled into Leipzig, it might be thought odd that the delegates wanted to hear from us, but the future of London's airports seems to fascinate many. The foreigner thinks we must have a 'cunnin' plan'.

The Messe (conference centre) has its own station, which seemed like the logical way to go, but it turned out I was the only delegate without a chauffeur-driven S-Class and I had to walk through the rain across a mile of waste land, pulling my squeaky roller bag.

But once inside I bumped into Michael Portillo, a man without whom no international conference is complete, and we had a good chat about trains and Tories. So all was well.

You couldn't move without bumping into a Russian pressing his interesting business card into your top pocket, and the big story in the aviation world is the growth of Turkish Airlines and its monster new airport near Istanbul.

The Turks may get all uppity about redeveloping a park, but they seem to have no problem with Tarmacking over the shores of the Bosphorus and laying down half a dozen runways.

Like all Manchester City fans, I have never flown Turkish, for fear of having to sit next to those United players who feature in the ads, but the airline is expanding so fast one has to sit up and take notice, until Erdogan decides to ban alcohol in Business, which would soon shift Wayne Rooney back onto BA.


After doing my gig I took a quick side trip to Weimar, on my way back to Berlin. Weimar is an undiscovered gem. Please don't think of going there, as the lack of foreign tourists is part of its charm.

Goethe lived there, as did Schiller. They were constantly in and out of each other's Haus(es) for cups of sugar. Cranach, Bach, Liszt and Nietzsche also spent considerable time there, though Nietzsche only after he had gone mad.

Indeed, almost every German cultural icon you have heard of lived in Weimar at some point, except Beckenbauer and Claudia Schiffer.

There's a magnificent rococo library, a few museums and a river runs through it. The place to stay is the Hotel Elephant. Its owners do not hide the fact that Adolf liked to stand on the balcony reviewing the Brownshirts, and ordered it to be elegantly rebuilt in 1938.

American officers began signing the guest book in May 1945, but then the border with the Russian zone was established further to the west.

The Soviets, always careful to be chums with the locals, made it off-limits for Germans for a decade, and filled the rooms with 300 Russian teachers. I was sad to stay only one night, but Berlin beckoned and a flight home. At least that was my plan.

BA had other ideas. One of its planes blew out an engine and returned to Heathrow T5, cancelling hundreds of short-hauls, including mine.

For once, my just-in-time philosophy was a handicap, as by the time I reached Tegel all the other options were full, and Easyjet had cleverly jacked up the price of its Schonefeld flight to an astronomic level.

So I spent rather less on a hotel and a dinner at Borchardt, just off the Unter den Linden, and escaped via Hamburg the next day, 24 hours late, but I still made it to Shropshire in time to don my whites and bowl four overs of absolute rubbish, which was carted all over the park.

My teammates unkindly suggested that a whole weekend in Berlin would have been a better option.


I abandoned unreliable aeroplanes for my latest trip to eastern Europe this summer, and sailed into Albania on an elderly 30-footer.

Just occasionally, the wind obliges perfectly and we had a force 5 blowing in precisely the right direction to spirit us from Corfu to Saranda on one tack.

After mooring by the customs shed, armed with a fistful of lek, we hit town. For about £15 a head you can eat a lot of tough but tasty lamb, washed down with Tirana lager or robust Albanian merlot.

It was election time in Albania and, boy, did one notice. They haven't had many elections in the past couple of millennia, so every lamppost and tree was festooned with flags and posters. The odd feature was that almost every poster was different, with a different party name, usually some combination of the words Albanian, Democratic, Popular, European, Social and Party. They also all had a number, mainly in double digits.

We spent most of the day trying to decipher the code, without success. In the evening, we met up with Ben, who organised the boats and spoke excellent English. He explained that there were in fact 99 parties standing. Maybe too many, he acknowledged.

But there was still no AIP (Albanian Independence Party) and no Conservatives. There is not a lot worth conserving from Albania's recent past.

The Socialists were favourites, in spite of the fact that Tony Blair was advising them (though without the assistance of Wendi Deng, it seems).

Ben warned us that the prime minister was appearing in the port the next day, to rally support. It would be chaotic. So it seemed wise to cut and run.

For once, that was easy. No airline schedules to consult - just pull up the anchor and set sail for home.

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