When my travel partner put on the table the next big trip idea – the Big Balkan Loop, to her big surprise, my feelings were rather lukewarm. But when I heard our itinerary would include Albania, the one country in Europe I have always wanted to visit, my decision was easy. Albania, or Shqipëria, as the Albanians call it has been on my bucket list since my first trip to the region in 1968. I barely brushed the border of Albania then, as I passed through Kosovo, and under Enver Hoxa Albania was hermetically closed to the outside world for many years to come. When they finally opened their doors we were tempted to go, but we put it off because of its Wild West reputation.
The reputation persists even 30 years in. As we were asking people close to the border in Montenegro, what were the conditions in Albania they all warned us not to go.
“You shouldn’t drive alone in Albania. The roads are bad and it is too dangerous.”
“How do you know?” was our retort. “Have you been there?”
And so it went in some other areas, too. When we asked on the Romanian – Moldovan border about the price of gas and the road conditions on the Moldovan side, no one could tell us. But they had plenty of bad stuff to share about their neighbor.
“Have you been there?” was our retort.
“No, but we hear from the relatives on the other side.”
Those who don’t have relatives on the other side, get their information from the TV. And as we know the one principle of the news agencies is: If it bleeds, it leads. So the sensationalistic news of the day about murders and crime gets repeated until everyone is convinced their neighbors are just waiting to pounce on them, if they ever dare cross the border.
As we crossed the border into the last European “hermit kingdom”, our expectations were running very high. Not that we didn’t read plenty of enthusiastic blogs of people traveling through the country, still, there were questions swimming around in our head:
Is the country ready to accept individual travelers; is the basic infrastructure in the places of our interest ready?(Um, yes, the hotels were quite lovely and up to snuff.) With the recent history of unrest and wars in religiously diverse Balkan places like Bosnia and Kosovo, I was especially curious how this country passed through transition from communist dictatorship to some sort of civil society.
How will we communicate? We have done very well so far with Ksenija’s old school Serbo-Croatian to the extent that often the parking and boat touts would yell to their brethren, “They’re our people! Let them be!”
But Albanian language is unrelated to any other and we will have to rely on people knowing some English. Answer: The young people spoke English and were open and eager to talk.
After the morning boat tour on the Montenegro side of Lake Skoder we crossed to the Albanian side of Lake Shkodër and well, we are happy to report that the water in the lake is still the same on both sides of the invisible border. Not only that; the fish in the water, plentiful birds and fowl and blooming water lilies are the same as well. Nature finds its own sensible ways!
On the solid ground of the border our first impressions were pretty good! The road was certainly better than in Montenegro! The post communist new government’s first act was to allow Albanians to own cars. And the fight for hearts and souls had begun in earnest the same day! And the winner is…….. Mercedes-Benz! Albanians love their cars, but not just any car. It must be a Mercedes Benz! And the newer (latest models apply only, please) and bigger, the better! Even if I do not know what was their starting point in 1989 when the regimes of Eastern Europe crumbled, the most significant item needed for a satisfying way of life of any Albanian was ultimately the right to own THE CAR. And everybody had to own the car the very next day. As our guide in Tirana told us: “I had no idea that my grandpa could even drive a car, but the morning after government issued a decree that people could own cars, I saw him happyily driving without the driver license through my hometown in the car of unknown origin!”
Of course Mercedeses, especially new ones, would be too expensive for most Albanians. But they creatively introduced an innovative business model as we were told by a 4-wheel car driver we hired for a ride into the mountains. The vast majority of cars you see in Albania were actually stollen in Western Europe and openly smuggled across the border. If you have had a car for a year and have one thousand euros you can get it legally registered.
No matter how we felt about the state of law in Albania, this information had quite a positive impact on our state of mind as we were, before arriving to Albania, quite concerned that our borrowed old, small BMW (model 100) would be stollen the first night after we crossed the Albanian border. Thankfully, we were assured by people in the travel industry that there is only a limited interest in BMWs, and especially not small and old. Nevertheless we deliberately kept our car very dirty to further lessen the appeal. Of course, if you have a car you have to ride on the roads and, it was a pleasant surprise, the roads were not only empty (of car traffic), but were much better than expected. ￼ I would dare to say they are in much better shape than in the country of our car’s registration, (Czechia), where the roads are under permanent state of repair, and definitely better than in the town of our own permanent residency, (Orinda, California) where the roads are left in a state of permanent disrepair.
The only road we could not drive was the famed road to Theth in the Albanian Accursed Mountains, also known as Albanian Alps. Indeed there was a certain amount of cursing going on driving on that dangerous road and certainly more by the British chaps we came across, who punctured their tire. But in true fashion of travelers helping travelers they had help changing the tire and our driver right off the bat offered to take it back with him and send it to them on the first bus next morning. Proving what people have noticed in their blogs that Albanians are helpful and generous people. Of course if they are not part of the Albanian mafia, which is successfully taking over the world’s underworld.
It is worth mentioning here that during the WWII Albanians were a bright shining exception to one rule. While their Balkan neighbors happily handed over their Jewish population or exterminated it themselves, Albanians not only protected their 200 Jewish neighbors, but also accepted Jewish refugees from Europe, hid them in their homes and helped them leave for safety. Albania was the only country where after the war the Jewish population was bigger than before the war.
Mountain villages were a good place to hide the refuges. And what mountains these are! The mountains remained surprisingly Catholic for centuries of Ottoman rule as they were too remote and the people too fierce for occupying Turks and they left them largely in peace. With intrepid travelers just discovering Albanian mountains and shores, there is a sense of camaraderie that we so fondly remember from our early days of travel. Looking into your smart phone for information is simply not enough and travelers do talk to each other, comparing notes, asking questions and sharing tips.
Let’s just pray the Albanian mountain beauty will stay protected from plastic and architectural garbage that we could see in our short visit to other places.
As we didn’t want to undertake the hike across the mountains we took Lake Koman ferry to reach the other side. At the other end an additional hour drive on a new road brought us to Valbonë, the beginning (or end) of the hiking trail. The mountains on this side were majestic as well and the rivers ran clear. But with a good road, the development was quicker and some larger, uglier hotels started creeping up. So were the first mosques. Nevertheless there seemed no issues about the coexistence of different religions in the mountains or in Albania overall. As a matter of fact Albanians we talked to emphasized this fact and they were clearly proud of it. Just as the American ambassador in 1934 exclaimed that there were no religious problems in Albania, the same has been assessed today. I only wish their neighbors and others further around the world who can’t help but claim their religion is the only right one and can not help but keep killing each other, could learn from Albanians.
Just a short walking tour through Tirana downtown with a great young Albanian guide gave us the sense of how all major religious groups live peacefully next to each other. Here is a newly built mosque funded by Turkish President Erdogan not far from the Catholic Church of Mother Teresa’s fame (she was Albanian born in North Macedonian capital Skopje) serving as a counterpoint to a beautiful Orthodox Church on the other side of Tirana’s Main square.
The population of Albania is made of a little less than 60% Muslims, 20% Christians (half Catholics, the other half orthodox) and 20% atheist. All of them clearly live in a very peaceful coexistence. Of those Muslims mentioned before more than half are Sunni and the smaller half is Bektashi (a Sufi dervish order) whose members can drink alcohol and eat pork. We were told that because every religion needs some restrictions this sect forbids consumption of rabits.
Research could not verify the latter statement, but in solidarity with the rest of the country we decided to order in the cozy restaurant in the beautiful town of Berat an exquisite roasted rabbit to fight increased population of this animal in Albania. We were happy to help. As always!
Berat by all means looks very Muslim, with the typical stone houses of Turkish Ottoman design and slim minarets. But at the Berat Castle there are churches galore and a Museum of Ikons.
Beer and wine is flowing freely and people are friendly. Here just leaving our Residenca Desaret hotel for a cobblestone stroll, I was stopped by a local chap and invited home for a morning shot of raki. I apologized for the hour was too early for drinking, but I did ask him how he enjoyed last night’s women World Cup soccer game in France.
As we drove through the countryside we marveled at the huge new houses in every village. No doubt they were built by the remittances from the 3 millions of Albanians working in the West. We found those left behind also hard working and eager to serve with a smile. We now regret not having stayed longer in Albania and not continuing down south to the Albanian riviera.
Undoubtedly the southern beaches have more appeal, but we got a bit put off by the overdevelopment in the first sea destination in Dürres. It was still a pre season calm, but thousands upon thousands of lounge chairs told a story, we did not want to be part of.