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Traveling With History...Albania

Breakfast at the Hotel Areela in Tirana, provided enough for a take-away lunch on the road.

Unexpected surprises in a once closed land.

A flower vendor offers a warm greeting. In general, people are warm, accessible, and helpful.

 

Healthy produce creates tasty meals.

       

 

Looking to add something exotic to an upcoming trip to Switzerland, I set out for Albania. Separated by politics as a Maoist ally of communist China,

The equestrian statue of national hero, Skanderbeg, graces the center of Skanderbeg Square. The moon rises over the adjacent, 18th-century Et`hem Bey mosque and the landmark Clock Tower.The National Museum (a must see), Opera House and government offices also face the square.

its long history of isolation is bred of mountainous terrain and a will for independence. With Italy a mere 160 miles to the west, across the Adriatic, it had been incorporated into the Roman empire by 145.  Greece is even closer at hand. The town of Sarande is only a few miles from the Greek island of Corfu, reached by ferry and hydrofoil.

    

A traditional hillside village, surrounded by olive groves.

It is mountains even more than the sea that define Albania.  The valleys they create provide land for agriculture, with sloping hillsides planted in olives and pasture for goats and sheep, with sheep-herding still a traditional occupation in the rural south.

 

Five centuries of Turkish rule have left their mark on the people and the land. Music, dress, architecture, and religion were all Ottoman imports.

The walls of Berati date back seven centuries. They enclose what remains of a once thriving fortified town, that is still home to a small number of families, with panoramic views on all sides.

Hillsides were fortified to assure control of the valleys below. Towns like Berati and Gjirokastra preserve their fortifications and are UNESCO World Heritage sites.                                                        

Outside a shop in Tirana. A lingering sense of the communist past.

                                                               

Mother Teresa, an Albanian icon.

     My wife, coming from Italy, advised me of Albania’s reputation for mafioso-style thugery.

Gypsy mother and children. Tirana.

I found nothing of the sort, never felt-threatened in any way. I found people focused on the rewards of freedom and the promise of greater prosperity beginning to take hold. 

Family still defines things. “I will soon be getting married,” a 30-year-old waiter in Tirana told me. “My father is now adding a floor to his house that will belong to us.. My brother and his family already live there. This is very common in Albania.”

        

Iconostasis in the Onufri Museum in Berati. While Islam is the majority religion, pockets of Christians are found in the south near Greece and in the north near Serbia.

Islam, largely disempowered by decades of communist rule, has also separated Albania from its Christian neighbors, with Greek Orthodox to the south, Serbian Orthodox to the east, and Catholic Italy to the west. As part of the Ottoman Empire, with an influx of Muslim settlers, many Christian Albanians converted to Islam in the early Middle Ages. But Christian communities remained, with an obvious presence as we traveled south, driving through a landscape of steep hills radiating the blue-green of olive trees and the lovely sound of bells ringing from the necks of the sheep and goats that link southern Albania to Macedonia and Greece.

         Driving in Albania provided some challenge, with  roads only intermittently surfaced or smooth> That provided a challenge I enjoy, which was amplified on our last full day on a 6-hour-long drive along that's called the Albanian Riviera, a stretch about 60 miles of spectacular coastal mountains north of Sarande.  

Mist in the rugged mountains along the Albanian Riviera.

Not everyone has a car, and there are still cattle-drawn carts in the countryside, and even in Tirana. But change is in evidence everywhere, from stylish fashions in Tirana's shops to house construction in burgeoning Tirana and vicinity. Most are only partly finished, lower floors topped by tall concrete posts designed to additional floors when resources permit. Transportation infrastructure has only been marginally addressed by a cash-poor government.

Old Gjirokastra, a charming cluster of streets at the foot of the great fortress.

       My on-line choice of the centrally located Hotel Areela... small, but with full modern amenities, proved a perfect base in Tirana, a family-run hotel with warm, welcoming and helpful proprietors.  Grown to more than a million people, Tirana lies at the foot of mountains that are already snow-covered on my mid-November visit.

In terms of weather, November certainly wasn’t the best time of year to go, with heavy rains interfering with driving and touring.  Other days were blue-sky clear and scenic. Summer brings a flood of visitors, the majority crossing the Adriatic by car ferry from Brindisi or flying in from Rome. “There are more Italian restaurant than Albanian restaurants, our taxi driver remarked

Chef Gjoca prepares delicious local fare at his Gjokastra restaurant.

when we asked him to recommend a restaurant featuring traditional Albanian food.  Luckily we tracked some down in Tirana and Gjirokastra, where chef Defrim Gjoca prepared qilfi (eggs, rice, and cheese),

Qilfi takes its cue from Albanian love of cheese.

specate mbushura medjath (stuffed peppers with cheese), and a deliciously abudant mix of greens and goat feta.  Fresh ingredients, fabulously tasty, washed down with a cold bottle of Korca, a refreshing local beer.  

          Italy’s links to Albania start in Roman times, with lands now part of Albania were part of the province of Macedonia. When the Roman Empire split, Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire until 1453 when it was overrun by the Ottoman Turks. Under Mussolini, Albania was annexed as a part of Italy in 1939, following a failed attempt at annexation of south Albania in 1920. 

King Zog in uniform, c. 1935, lost his kingdom when Mussolini invaded in 1939.

 

Zog, the Albanian king, fled to Greece, and Italy’s Victor Emanuelle III, was named King of Albania. That forced union

Enver Hoxha, Albania's radical communist leader from 1946 to 1991.

ended in 1944, when communist partisans secured control of the country. For the next 56 years it was Allied with the Stalinist Soviet Union and then Maoist China.

    Albania offers bargain pricing on hotels and dining,  It’s hard to spend $30, for two, at dinner and easy spend a lot less on lamb, pork, chicken, and deliciously fresh vegetables on the menu. Breakfast at our Tirana hotel was an elaborate offering of bread, eggs, ham, fruit, juice, cheese, coffee and more, included in the $39 nightly room rate, pricing matched elsewhere on our

travels. Rental cars are easy to find, we  booked a comfortable and road-worthy Volkswagen that proved adequate to Albania’s notoriously rough roads. Gas was the budget exception, priced at more than $8/gallon, but driving allowed full access to the scenic southeast quarter of the country.

 

                                         *****

        

A village in the south sits between cultivated valleys and towering mountains.

Albania makes a great getaway from tourist-clogged Europe, an easy-to-reach alternative (it’s a 75-minute, $95 flight from Rome) alternative, with plenty to do to stay busy for a week or two, if you want to add northern Albania to the itinerary.

Home from a day in the fields. A traditional lifestyle prevails in rural Albania.

         The Albanians proved to be open to outsiders, friendly and helpful when the need arises, that fact proven on a cold, dark night in Gjirokasta, when what appeared to be a road, proved to be a ditch, leaving the right front wheel spinning free over the inky black of a five foot deep ditch, with a stone wall  mere inches from the rear of the car.

         A knock on the door of a nearby house brought a call to three men who spent well over an hour, determined to free us from a very challenging problem that would have been made even worse by the rainy weather that followed the next morning. No one was home the next morning

Butrint, a World Heritage Site where ruins range Roman to medieval.

when I returned with gifts, including macadamia nuts from Hawaii, likely an unknown taste treat.

                                The Basics

Butrint: ruins in a beautiful setting.

Travel: No visa required, passport stamped upon entry. The lek is the currency. It trades at about 100 to the dollar, which makes pricing simple. High fashion isn’t the thing here, unless you’re a bride, with wedding shops as ubiquitous as nail salons in the U.S.  In some places dollars and Euro are accepted.

Sarande at dusk. Car ferry and hydrofoil service links Sarande to Italy and Greece.

Credit cards are not widely in use, so coming with cash is the recommend.

Shepherd and flock, a frequent site in the countryside.

 

 

Plenty of on-line resources with detailed information. www.albaniantourism.com.The well-written, informative, and useful Bradt Guide by Gillian Gloyer is an excellent resource. We made hotel reservations based on its recommends outside of Tirana, which worked for off-season travel.

Tirana : Google Hotel Areela, Tirana.

 

An excellent, conveniently located, quiet, inexpensive  choice.

Butrint: sunset after a rainy day.

                  Car rental: Good service and well-maintained cars from

                  Sixt: www.sixt.com/car-rental albania.

 

 

 

 

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8 Comments for “Traveling With History...Albania”

  1. Great article , however let me stress out that albania is a multireligious mostly agnostic country , home to all 3 major religions . In fact i am surprised you did not notice the Orthodox church that is in the center ( the opposite way of where you took the mosque photo , only 100 m ) . The catholic church as well is a bit more down , close to the river .

    You are always welcomed , to come back . You should check the north too with thethi and valbona ,the albanian riviera also is more enjoyable in the summer .

    Regards ,
    Marsel

  2. arvanitis kargjatis

    albania is mostly agnostic for sure, a very tolerant culture (in contrast with its neighbors). "their old faiths" are the wonderful pagan rituals that were very close to nature - a good deal of these incredible ancient indigenous european traditions still exist in the more remote regions. the monotheistic religions are mostly going the way of the dinosaur (fortunately), but with so much money poured in from neighboring interests, it's hard for poorer albanians to turn down the cash in return for pretending to be religious. so the path to freedom from monotheism is probably still a generation or two off.

  3. " my wife coming from italy ,advised me of albanias reputation for mafioso style thugery" well if anyone knows anything about mafioso style thugery is italians so cant argue with that.

  4. Very amazing country which is highly misunderstood. Went there a couple years ago and it was very enjoyable compared to some other places Ive been (France,Greece,England,Serbia,Spain) and it doesnt come in a highly cost.

  5. Claudia Janiszewski

    Mahalo plenty for the great article about Albania. As a local girl born and raised in Hawaii and having worked in Albania since 1994, I love the kindness of the people here in Albania as it reminds me a lot of the Aloha Spirit we find in Hawaii. Thank you for portraying Albania and its people as it really is and not the stereo type that is sometimes portrayed in the media and Hollywood movies!

    Aloha!!
    Claudia Botts Janiszewski
    President/Founder
    Organization for the Support of Albania's Abandoned Babies (OSAAB)
    Queen Geraldine University Hospital of Obstetrics and Gynecology
    Tirana, Albania

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