Albania has always been this mysterious communist country that no-one I know had been to. We knew nothing much about it and even had to look up it’s capital (Tirana). We’ve filled in quite a few gaps after a very full couple of days and evenings here. And a lot of information from tour guides.....read information overload. I’ve been keeping notes as they talk because I just can’t recall it all.
For the record Albania is a country of 28,000 sq kms of mostly mountains (70%) and has a long, fertile coast. There are nearly 3 million people, 1m of whom have drifted into the capital,Tirana.
The language is not related to any others around it. Letters are Latin and so it’s easy enough to work out the words phonetically but it’s not Slav or Germanic. They seem to think it’s related from a more ancient Illyrian language. The main religion is Bektashi derived from Shiite Islam. However it seems religion is not a big deal here which is not surprising given that religion was banned in 1967 and they have only relatively recently emerged from the world’s most oppressive communist regime lorded over by a very powerful dictator. 10 years in jail for telling an anti communist joke. This man Hoxha died in 1985, Yugoslavia began to dissolve after 1990 and in Albania communism collapsed in Albania from 1991 on.
There are many Albanians living elsewhere for obvious reasons. Across the border in North Macedonia and Kosovo there are large populations. Kosovo is mostly Albanians which is why it’s attempts to declare itself as a separate country are being challenged in these parts. It was so interesting hearing the details about life here pre 1991. Their dictator was so hardline that over the 40+ years he ruled he fell out with first Russia (Khrushchev) and then China - he believed they were both revisionist in their approach to communism and cut ties with them. Citizens were not allowed to own cars until 1990 - can you believe that! So when they first bought cars no-one knew how to drive and they mostly learned as they went. That explains their road rules ignorance which we have all observed from coach with terror! The roads are now full of flash Mercs, Audis, Porsche etc. Still a few beaten up old communist cars too and some city appropriate small cars. SUVs are not evident. Pre 1991 there were no foreign films and no outside radio broadcasting. We have been out in the country and seen many people hand hoeing fields, harvesting hay with scythes and putting it onto cards drawn by horses. There are still shepherds minding very small domestic flocks and papa and mama working their fields together with long skirts and headscarves.
So what a contrast is the capital! Cafes and restaurants everywhere, music, tight jeans, alcohol, and smoking of course. It feels like any other European city. Except that they notice us - we look different. The Albanian food has been tasty but it was nice to have something different. Last night we both enjoyed some pasta, mine with Prosecco and Mark liked his Albanian rose.
During communism healthcare and education were free as they are now but a private health system is emerging and they don’t seem comfortable with that. (all this information is from a couple of guides). He spoke about the public GPs who are not allowed to charge a fee but they make it clear that they expect something. It sounds just like the way the communist system worked with comprehensive use of bribes. It’ll take some generations for all that sort of thing to change, providing there are no more dictators. There are now private doctors and some private hospitals. Another comment our guide made was that many people are realizing that capitalism means hard work - keeping businesses open long hours etc. Previously everyone was employed but given the standards of building from that time, their litter problem and the lack of development of public areas perhaps their motivation and work quality wasn’t so great.
Mother Theresa was Albanian (although the Macedonians also lay claim to her) and their international airport is called Mother Theresa. They are clearly proud of her.
We first visited Kruje, an old town with a castle on the hill. Some parts of their old castles are well preserved or have been rebuilt and much is still in ruins. I doubt if there are plentiful funds for restoration. There was a gauntlet of souvenir shops here and we enjoyed the various crafts-probably the best little shops so far. All these castles are well positioned for defense and for providing great views! Another 3 course lunch (groan) and we were on our way to Tirana. There have been protests in the capital and one was scheduled for our arrival so our poor driver went round and round the city trying to negotiate access to our hotel with the police but to no avail. We couldn’t approach the City Centre. In the end our guide hopped out of the bus and stood his ground.The policeman had his hand on the guy telling him to get back on the bus, whistles were blown and then a breakthrough...we were allowed in! That was a ‘traveling moment’. Fanciest and newest hotel in town- in fact currently at 23 floors, the tallest building in Albania. It was very comfortable and our washing dried well in the air conditioning- a most important criteria after 2.5 weeks on the road!
We spent all of the next day traveling to Berat or ‘white city’. It’s also called the city of 1000 windows although that name is an incorrect translation. It should be the “city with one window above another”. A lovely town built on a hill that brought to mind images of Nepalese villages (although in better condition) and another 3 course lunch! This was a long day trip but with lots to see on the way. We saw lots of red poppies, many small fields of vegetables, hand hay gathering, unfinished buildings (money ran out) and rural scenes that were a window into how things were as recently as 20 years ago. But there are now a couple of generations who knew nothing of that time so with the optimism of youth they will be taking this country forward. Best of luck to them.
We had a stroll though the centre of town and endured a comprehensive tour of the national museum. Our guide was severely offended that we didn’t tip him not because he wasn’t good but because that wasn’t part of the deal apparently. The tour organizers were suitably unimpressed when he pressured them too and when they paid him something it wasn’t enough! Suffice to say he won’t be employed by them again. After dinner in a cozy cafe we stumbled across a throbbing restaurant area close to one of Tirana’s large parks with Albanians enjoying an evening of food and music.
We will add more photos when the internet is better