"All of Albania is under construction." says our tour guide for the week, Jimmy Lama.
And it appears to be true.
Albania is undergoing a construction boom with upscale hotels, restaurants, and businesses developing everywhere.??
We cross the border into Albania from Montenegro. Because the government never invested in a railroad system, tourists can enter by land only through several border crossings with a car. (Ferries run from Italy and Greece. Tirana also has an international airport.) But the border guards are lax, letting us pass with the stamp of our passports. (Albania has been part of NATO since 2008 and has applied for EU membership.)??
Crossing the border, I immediately notice cornfields and Mercedes.
Before 1992 Albanians weren't allowed to own private cars. When the Communist regime collapsed, they believed the only car trustworthy enough to weather their roads was the Mercedes. So, second-hand lots cropped up everywhere. The automobile's reputation persists— today, three out of five cars in Albania is a Mercedes.??
Jimmy drives us through the northern town of Shkodra where Mother Theresa's parents lived, and possibly Mother Theresa herself until the age of four (although this is debated). The Rozafa castle perches at the top of the city, but with only seven days to see the whole country, we push on, driving along the Ottoman built Mesi Bridge.??
Jimmy takes us to Kruja where a citadel touts magnificent views as well as the Skanderbeg museum, dedicated to Albania's national hero who routed out the Ottomans from this region in the 15th century.
Skanderbeg monuments dot the entire country, his legendary battles as well as his mythical fighters (such as Mamica Castrioti) are the pride of many Albanians because he ruled the area independently and created peace with the local rulers.??
On our second day in Albania, we tour Tirana's city center where Skanderbeg's equestrian statue is in the middle of the square. Along this boulevard, the opulent Taiwan Center has slick restaurants and cafes. The complex was built after Albania broke ties with China in 1978 and Enver Hoxha threw the entire country into complete isolation until the fall of communism in 1992.??
Next stop is the Sky tower, a skyscraper that overlooks the entire city. From here the deep colors of the city shine. The Tirana governor, Edi Rama, initiated a beautification project in the city several years back, painting the socialist blocs ochre, red, azure, and green. But the small water tanks on the socialist roofs still tell the story of how before 1992, the city didn't have 24-hour running water.??
Our stay in the capital is short because Jimmy Lama suggests we enjoy the heart of the Albanian Mediterranean. He drives us 45 kilometers to Durres, which became the capital of Albania after the country declared independence in 1912 from the Ottomans. It was also once the ancient port town of the Illyrians starting in the 7th century BC. After the Romans conquered the region, the city became one of the two starting points of the Via Egnatia, the road that linked Rome with Byzantium.??
Durres during the summer months burgeons with endless rows of hotels and restaurants along the beach. We eat a seafood lunch of fresh caught fish and shrimp and then visit the Roman amphitheater with a preserved mosaic from the Byzantine era.??
We then stop for the night in Vlora, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas split. We stay at the New York Hotel and from the terrace watch the setting sun.??
We notice, above all, that the Albanians are generous. Although prices for Western pockets are at least fifty percent less (a 4 star hotel costs 40 Euro for a double room and meals for four people run at about 35 Euro), the Albanians never hesitate to give us more than we pay for and make doubly sure that our bill is exact.
The country survives on a dual currency of both Euros and Lek. Credit cards are accepted at major hotels, but not encouraged due to the 3% surcharge that proprietors must pay. So, as a courtesy, we don't use our credit cards. For that, bank machines are everywhere.
From Vlora we wind through Llogara Pass, a mountain area thick with pine trees that once had many holiday camps. Jimmy recalls that you had to have connections at your work to get the ration cards for vacationing here. ?From there, we spill into the Albanian Riviera. What makes this area special, other than its stunning beauty, is that skyscrapers, hotels, or corporate pollution hasn’t tainted it. The road is newly paved and weaves through the mountains. Stray mules roam atop hills and restaurants jut out from the cliffs.??
Jimmy explains that in Albania the North is considered less developed and the South more developed. The two regions have their stereotypes about each other also. Northerners are rougher, while Southerners are easy-going.
We stop in the Greek Riviera town of Himara for swimming and a seafood lunch. Here, signs display in both Greek and Albanian.?? A little further along, tucked at the bottom of a mountain, we also visit the Palermo Castle where another of Albania's heroes—Ali Pasha—lived. He built castles throughout the region and consolidated his personal power during the 18th century, stretching to the Greek area of Ioannina. Threatened by his power, the Ottomans eventually beheaded him.?
Near the Palermo Castle a defunct Russian submarine base hasn't been dismantled. In 1961 Enver Hoxha broke relations with thee Soviet Union and the Russians left. Hoxha, however, kept the submarine, which still today is tucked inside this mammoth hole.??
After a few hours, we are in Saranda where cruise ships dock. Tourists often come from Corfu to Saranda on day trips. Many people speak Greek here. We hear the greeting "Yassas!" along the cobbled promenade where ritzy restaurants mingle with fishermen boats.??
Saranda is a perfect base for visiting the archeological ruins of Butrint, first settled by the Greek Illyrians in the 7th century B.C. Butrint was likely where people from the Greek world came to receive healing from the medicine god Asclepius. A temple still exists alongside later Roman structures, including a theater that could accommodate an audience as large as 4,000. When the Romans conquered the city, they created a 4 km long aqueduct and lavish buildings. Thereafter, the people here during the Byzantine era created several opulent churches, one constructed during the 5th century A.D. was comparable in size to Istanbul's Hagia Sophia. In order to preserve the church, archeologists have left most of the ruins underground.??
After Butrint, we drive inland to Gjirokastra, first nearing the Greek-Albanian border. The famed Hoxha bunkers dot the terrain throughout Albania, but in this region they become far more numerous. After Hoxha broke his ties with the Chinese in 1978, Albania was totally isolated and closed until 1992. Paranoid of an attack, Hoxha built 700,000 bunkers throughout the country. Jimmy explains that the cost of these bunkers could have provided a two-bedroom home for every Albanian family. Instead, Albanians between the ages of 18-55 had compulsory military training every year for one month.??
Today, off the highway several bottled water industries exist. We stop at the Blue Eye, the 100 meter deep spring. This is where tens of mountain springs meet. Eco-tourists will be happy to know that Albania has fresh water streams, which are not treated with chemicals. Spouts at restaurants and along the roads allow anyone with a container to take the free and plentiful beverage. The vegetables and fruits are also organic. After the fall of communism, fertilizer companies went bankrupt and farmers could no longer afford high-tech products.??
We reach Gjirokastra, known as the silver city because of its glittering stone roofs and cobblestone roads, and also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha. His family's home has been turned into an Ethnographic Museum displaying how wealthy families during the 19th century lived. At the top of the city, there's a citadel first erected in the 6th century A.D., then fortified by the Ottomans and used by Ali Pasha.
A teqe perches along the cliff of this citadel. Teqe's are everywhere. Sixty-five percent of Albanians are Muslims, having converted during the 500 years of Ottoman occupation. Of these, about thirty percent claim to be part of the Bektashi order, a Sufi sect. Today, Tirana is the world center of Sufism, but we visit a teqe outside Gjirokastra called the Zadhil Teqe led by Baba Sadik Ibro.??
We drive back to Durres where we take the ferry to Bari, Italy and then a train to Naples—but not before enjoying a last day at the Durres beach.??
There is so much more to say about this country and its people.
After being completely isolated under a brutal regime from 1945-1992, a pyramid scheme sent Albania's economy toppling in 1997. Nevertheless, ten years later Albania is safe, stable, and stunning. This resilience testifies to Albania's spirit of innovation that stems back to their ancient Illyrian roots.
Today, visitors can enjoy everything from organic food and archeological ruins to skyscraper restaurants and spa days at the beach.
I highly recommend a trip to Albania.
If you find that you want to live there after a brief visit, even better.
Travel diary shared by CaliforniaBarbara