I’d been curious about this small, largely forgotten eastern european country since I first saw it through the summer haze from nearby Corfu way back in the early 80s. Albania in those days was held in the iron grip of Enver Hoxha, one of the worst dictators of the community era and was kept detached from the outside world, much as North Korea is today. A visit then seemed impossible – these days borders are easily crossable, there are a few airlines (including BA) flying into the one international airport, and the country can be reached by ferry from Greece or Italy.
Long after Hoxha’s death in 1985, the country still struggled to progress and was still a lawless place, not helped by the desertion of the police and Republican Guard after rioting in 1997 which allowed vast amounts of weapons onto the streets. My knowledge of the country in the 90s was limited to second hand stories of the blood feuds which were (and apparently still are) active and have killed many Albanian men since their resurgence after the communist era. Some men still allegedly live under virtual house arrest just to stay alive and it’s said that there’s an entire apartment block in one city that protects a community of men threatened with revenge attacks. Chequered as it’s history has been, Albania is now firmly in the 21st century and it is very unlikely that any traveller would be affected by these events in what is now one of the most welcoming and endearing countries we’ve ever visited.
This grim recent history is mainly evident in the form of the concrete bunkers scattered around the country, hundreds of thousands of which were built to fend off invaders from the capitalist West. Some museum exhibits are pretty graphic, faithfully documenting the very bad times as well as the good, of people’s lives and struggles. Aside from that there’s little evidence of the communist era left – even the cars are usually modern imported models; Mercedes, BMW, even Range Rovers and Jaguars. Public transport, on the other hand, is not very well-developed compared to other former communist countries in the area. The most common vehicle is the ‘furgon’ (van) which is usually a Mercedes minibus and comes in a variety of standards from dilapidated with unattached seats and chickens on board to flashy with loads of chrome trim and starry lights in the ceiling. There are no timetables or bus stations as such and buses leave when they’re full, so you need to turn up early to avoid a long wait, or to find that you’ve missed your chance for the day.
Our introduction to Albania was the enticingly named capital, Tirana, which has the only international airport. It’s a comfortable and attractive city with a burgeoning café culture, interesting architecture, green spaces, a large lake, good museums and excellent restaurants and bars. There’s even a cable car straight up a nearby mountain for quick access to some fresh air. The temperature was still in the 30s in mid September and the very low prices meant that we could take our pick of the al fresco spots spread liberally around the city, particularly in the Blloku area which used to house only Hoxha and the party elite. Everyone’s now welcome to sip cocktails or coffee as they please.
Even the capital doesn’t have a proper bus station but the unpaved street corner behind the football stadium where our bus to Korçë left from was only 1km or so from the hotel. We settled in on the loose back seat in between two expat Albanians, both holidaying from their new lives in Greece but both clearly in love with their homeland. They spoke some english and went out of their way to chat and make us feel welcome as most Albanians do. Many left during the troubled years but many are now returning too, bringing new found skills and knowledge with them. The scenery was so mountainous and beautiful, especially the stretch alongside Lake Ohrid, with views of Macedonia on the opposite shore, that we hardly noticed the lack of air-conditioning.
Our late afternoon arrival in the lovely University city of Korçë showed again how random street signs are in Albania – it seems most people have mental maps of their area and don’t need them. We were very glad of a cold drink when we eventually found our B&B in a lovely restored Ottoman house in the improving old quarter. We saw virtually no western tourists during our stay and we were again welcomed with open arms by anybody who got to speak to us. One student and her friend walked with us almost to the edge of the city practicing her (very good) english and a large group of schoolchildren pursued us down the road with ‘hello, what your name’ etc. when we got lost somewhere behind the mosque.
The road from Korçë to the stunning hilltop town of Gjirokastër is one of the worst in the country. Albania’s ambitious road building programme is starting to take effect but some stretches are still unpaved and the rest is like driving over a cheese grater, knuckles white from gripping the seat in front. This makes it a long journey with only one or two buses so you leave early – 5.30am at the stop or you may be waiting until the next day.
Arriving without any accommodation we seriously underestimated the climb from the bus stop on the main road up the steep cobbled streets to the old centre. After getting dragged halfway to a distant B&B by an old lady with few words of english, we eventually gave up, found a café with wi-fi, booked a place online and got a taxi. Our brand new (read not quite finished) hotel sat near the top of town with predictably great views. By Albanian standards Gjirokastër is almost touristy with souvenir shops and artisans’ workshops but the main event is the spectacular castle covering the entire hilltop. A strange feature of the town, which is only obvious once you’ve been told about it, has it’s roots in a cutlery factory; many gardens have fences made of perforated sheet steel. If you look carefully you can see where all of the knives, forks and spoons were pressed out! Another fascinating aspect of Albanian life much in evidence here is superstition – sinister dishevelled soft toys and dolls known as majmune (monkeys) peer down from many buildings, protecting buildings and occupants against the evil eye – some old habits still die hard.
It only takes an hour and a half or so to reach Sarandë, Albania’s top seaside resort for foreign visitors. It’s better known than anywhere else because it’s little port hosts the regular ferries to and from Corfu so many of it’s visitors don’t stay longer than half a day. It’s a great town in its own right with everything you need for a beach holiday, but the big draw is the nearby archaeological site of Butrint, spread over an island-like peninsula and fought over for millennia. Our original hotel would have been great – right on the front with seaview balcony and breakfast on the breezy roof terrace, but the air-con didn’t work and the old lady who was minding the place spoke no english so we had little sleep and moved after a night to a brand new (almost finished) apartment on the main street. When we met the owner (Vayron – ‘like your Lord Byron’) again on the second day he was most disappointed (as were his son and daughter) that we hadn’t joined them for breakfast in the café across the road. He hadn’t told us of course, but we were there with them the next day and all was paid for by our host after some entertaining chat about nothing in particular.
On our way back North we managed one night in the beautiful Ottoman ‘white city’ of Berat. Its houses cascade down the hillsides below the ancient fortress, encircling a village where people still live. After an unusual encounter with a man shepherding a flock of free-ranging turkeys on the hilltop we were invited into an old lady’s house for coffee on her little terrace – plus the opportunity to taste her range of homemade preserves. She didn’t speak any english of course, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Durrës, our final stop, is Albania’s Brighton – the capital on sea. Its long beachfront is lined with hotels, smart restaurants and various piers and even here there’s a well-preserved amphitheatre right in the centre. Our large apartment on the 14th floor of a modern block on the front gave us amazing views of dramatic lightning storms over the sea from the front and, to the rear, the hillside summer home of King Zog (yes he did exist, and he was an Albanian!)
I can honestly say that I’ve rarely felt such disappointment at having to come home as I did when we finally had to leave Albania. The people are some of the warmest and most welcoming we’ve ever come across, the country beautiful and unspoilt, the food tasty and (oh so) affordable, there are accommodation options to suit every taste and pocket, and the sights rival or surpass those in much of the rest of Southern Europe. The country is changing fast as investment comes in and entrepreneurs return from lives abroad and there’s a real feeling that life’s good and getting better here. If you don’t mind a few bumps in the road and holes in the pavement, don’t leave it too late to visit.