How many facts can you tell me about Albania? I bet it's not many. Before I started to research this trip all I could have told you is that the capital is Tirana, that Norman Wisdom was popular there, and that they once came last in the Eurovision Song Contest with a ditty called "Goats Aren't Just For Kissing", and I'm pretty sure I've made up at least one of those. Y'see, it's a mystery is Albania. I don't know anyone who's been there. Maybe that's not such a big deal. I don't know anyone who's been to Ipswich either.
The reason Albania is such a mystery is because it was closed to the outside world from 1944 until 1991, which means that they missed all the decent Only Fools and Horses episodes and only caught those shite Christmas specials. But, on the other hand, this also means that Albanians inhabit a universe utterly devoid of the concept of Jive Bunny. So perhaps forty-seven years of communism isn't as bad as it's often made out to be.
During this period of closure, religious organisations were banned as was the private ownership of cars, which presumably spelled the demise of the Albanian travel sweet industry. I assume that's true. I mean, you never hear about it, do you? Most homes didn't own a TV and those that did had the choice of a single, black-and-white channel. It must have been like living in that town in Footloose without even the excitement of Christian fundamentalism to keep you occupied at the weekends. To make matters worse, this one channel seems to have featured an endless, back-to-back Norman Wisdom-a-thon. With the Communists in charge, Albania certainly put the 'grim' in Mr. Grimsdale.
Want some more facts? Go on, it's free. Not long before the Communists, Albania had a beautifully alien-sounding monarch called King Zog. The Zogster was famed for smoking 150 cigarettes a day. Assuming he got a decent night's sleep this means he puffed his way through one cigarette every six minutes. Or maybe he just smoked a handful at a time, I don't know. This all seems a tad excessive until you learn that during his life he survived over fifty-five assassination attempts. It must have been hard to take seriously the doctor's health advice about cutting down when someone's permanently trying to pop a cap in yo ass. In one famous attempt on his life he survived by shooting back at the wannabe assassins, the first modern Head of State to do so. I can't imagine the Queen whipping out an Uzi and letting rip. Prince Philip maybe, if the assailant was from an ethnic minority, but not the Queen.
But if their human leaders are superheros, their superheros, especially their divine superheros, are more human, and Albania seems to be a strong advocate for excessive political correctness and positive discrimination in the heavenly selection process. For starters, there's Verbti, the god of storm and fire, whose name translates as 'the blind one', and Shurdi, the weather god whose moniker means 'the deaf one'. There's also a minor deity with a club foot, a stammer and a bit of a bad back but he doesn't get much of a mention.
One last nugget of useless information: Albania is also home to the Cursed Mountains. As tourist marketing board disasters go, the name of these hills is up there with Galicia's unwelcoming Coast of Death and Llandudno's ill-received but astonishingly accurate brochure "Welcome to Shitsville". The Cursed Mountains are home to wolves and bears and, come 2012, one very nervous cyclist pedalling faster than he's ever pedalled before. Still, it could be worse. With a heavily French accented 'nul points' still burning our singer's disappointed but horny, little ears I could be being led backstage dressed in a goat costume.