The railway platform at Tirana was as full as it ever gets. That meant all of half a dozen people waiting for the dawn train to Pogradec, among them an English gricer and a Polish twitcher. The latter had travelled across Europe to catch a glimpse of rare birds and was bound for Lake Ohrid.
And the gricer? He was in Albania in search of rare railway carriages. It is amazing how far folk will travel in pursuit of their hobbies.
"Just look at this," said the trainspotter as a green Albanian engine shunted a rake of dirty red carriages into the platform. To us the carriages looked precisely like the older rolling stock one finds on branch lines in many parts of Germany, with just one important difference. Most of the windows on the train to Pogradec were cracked and some even completely missing. Throwing rocks at passing trains is a popular sport in Albania.
Yes, they really do use cast-offs from Germany on Albanian trains. The gricer spoke with enthusiasm of having only a day or two earlier ridden on an Albanian branch line in an old German train that still had a map of Bavaria on display. Albanian trains are amazing. Cast back thirty years and the country relied entirely on passenger carriages imported from China. Enver Hohxa is said to have wanted it that way. But after Hoxha's death in 1985, the Albanian Railways started collecting cast-offs from railways around Europe. First came the Polish collection, then there was a French season. Then the Fat Controller stumbled on some ancient Italian carriages going cheap. Next came some magnificently ancient hand-me-downs from Austria and now Albanian Railways are enjoying a German season.
The 6 hr 40 min train journey from Tirana to Pogradec is a wonderful bargain. The one-way fare is 295 Albanian leks. Just a couple of euros. Where else in Europe can you get to spend so much time on a train for so modest an investment? The gricer did not stay the course, and decanted less than an hour out of Tirana. The twitcher was a man with stamina and stuck with us the whole way to Pogradec.
Albanian train journeys are noisy, with incessant sounding of the train horn to remind sheep and their minders to move off the track. Grass grows freely on these little-used lines and the shepherds have clearly come to a mutual understanding with the Fat Controller. "We make sure that the tracks are kept open for your trains, but please don't mow us down."
There were good refreshments on the journey, with passengers grabbing bunches of grapes from the vines outside the carriage window. The train's speed was so slow that there was ample opportunity to choose the ripest fruit.
Pogradec pulls twitchers and fishermen from far and wide. "People come here year after year," said a woman in Drilon, a small lakeshore community on the road from Pogradec towards the Macedonian border. "Even Enver Hoxha came here,” she said, “and not just once. But for forty consecutive summers."
This article was first published as a hidden europe e-brief. The authors are Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries.