Albania......You think you've heard of it but aren't exactly sure where it is. Perhaps you have heard of it but thought westerners couldn't visit. Or maybe you've heard it referenced in movies such as Wag the Dog, The Manchurian Candidate, and Twins but haven't given it much more thought. These are just a few of the many questions I've been asked about Albania in the 2 1/2 years I've been living here. I'll admit, when my husband first told me that we were moving to Albania, I asked myself some the very same questions. But since we've been here I've found answers to these questions as well as a slew more.
First, to answer the original questions: Albania is located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. North of Greece, west of Kosovo and Macedonia and south of Montenegro, visiting this tiny Balkan nation is an experience like no other. And yes, there was a period of self-imposed isolationism during the mid- twentieth century when Albania's borders were closed to the outside world. Since the fall of Communism in 1991, however, the borders have been open to foreigners and they are coming. Albania is a member of NATO and engaged in a campaign to become the newest member of the European Union. The country is dirt poor in terms of economic wealth but is rich in heritage, culture, and spirit. The reasons to visit are many so check out some of the reasons you should come, buy your ticket, and come visit.
The top ten reasons you should visit Albania:
The ancient ruins: You can visit UNESCO World Heritage sites and other ancient ruins without having to deal with crowds. In fact, I don't think I've ever encountered a line at any of the historic ruins we've visited. In Albania you can visit everything from 13th century towns to 7th century ruins for mere pennies and often be the only ones visiting. Some of my favorite spots here in Albania include the ancient cities of Apollonia, Bylis, and Butrint. And only in Albania can you receive a guided tour of the largest amphitheater in the Balkans by one of the archaeologists who actually excavated the site. These sites might not be as famous as Italy's Pompeii or Greece's Acropolis but they are impressive in their own right and worth a visit.
Castles, castles, and more castles: Albania has lots of castles. They are more Nancy Drew mystery than Cinderella but their sturdy stone foundations are as solid as the Albanian people themselves. Today some are little more than stone foundations while others are well preserved historic sites but all speak to Albania's long and storied past. They are located atop hills, along the Adriatic shores, or even in the middle of fields. Some are filled with museums, cafes, and vendors selling trinkets while others are simply grassy areas where sheep graze. Regardless of which castle you visit you will be stepping back into an important part of Albania's history. Just think about the work that went into erecting these masterpieces that have withstood the test of weather and time.
Diverse geography: Do you like the mountains? How about the beach? Or perhaps mountains that plunge into the sea. Regardless of where you are in Albania, you are within a few hours of all of her diverse biospheres. Visiting the villages of the northern Albanian Alps is like going back in time. Two of my favorite are Thethi and Valbona. A visit to Thethi is like taking a trip to a land that time has forgotten. If you want to really see the stars at night you only need to spend a summer evening staring at the sky from a place that truly has zero ambient light. It is breathtaking. And despite the snakes and bugs that inhabit both places, I'd go back there in a heartbeat. If the sea is your preferred vacation spot I highly recommend the Ionian seaside village of Dhermi. Located along the Albanian Rivera, the crystal clear waters of Dhermi are sure to relax and refresh you. Visit in June or September and you will have the pebble filled beaches and warm water all to yourself.
Remnants of Communist past: History is often ugly, making societies want to suppress the unpleasantness and focus only on the positive. I believe this is a mistake because in order to know where we are going we need to know where we have been. As such, it is important to recognize even the ugliest parts of a country's history. Albania's Communist period is one such time that many would like to forget but it is impossible to do so since reminders are literally right in your face. From the characteristically blocky architecture to the solemn faced monuments, the past is alive. While not quite embracing her recent past, it appears that Albania is at least beginning to acknowledge it. A museum dedicated to Albania's Communist period is slated to open in the northern city of Shkoder in the near future. This museum will join a poignant pictorial at Albania's National History Museum and as well as an outdoor exhibit here in Tirana. For more on Albania's Communist past, see the bunkers discussion below.
Bunkers: Once upon a time Albania was ruled by a slightly paranoid dictator named Enver Hoxha. A vital part of his national defense system was the construction of over 700,000 concrete bunkers. Strategically located throughout the country as Albania's first line of defense against the invading armies that never came, these concrete mushrooms were said to be indestructible. Today the bunkers are perhaps the most visible reminder of Albania's Communist past with many still dotting the shores and hillsides, city blocks and the front yards of private houses. Some of the remaining bunkers are concrete hulks that have been stripped of their iron while others are intact and have been splashed with colorful coats of paint. Others remain concrete gray as they silently stand guard watching the world go by.
Religious freedom: Albania is an extremely religiously tolerant society with Christianity and Islam peacefully co-existing side by side. Religion runs parallel to the country's history and development with many of her early settlements being built as religious centers for the region. When Hoxha declared Albania an atheist state in 1967, the public practice of religion ceased. Churches were converted into government storage facilities but fortunately many of the most valuable religious icons were spared. A generation of Albanians was raised without a deep religious identity which has resulted in many Albanians claiming a religion in name only. Today the census says that 59% of the country identifies as Muslim and 17% as Christian. I regularly hear the call to prayer and see crowds filling the Catholic cathedral each Sunday. Orthodox churches do the hillsides in both the northern and southern parts of the country. Coming from a society where religion is so polarizing, it is refreshing to live in a place where one's religion isn't worn on their sleeve and individuals are free to worship (or not) as they please.
National pride: Albanians have a deep national pride that is evident where ever you look. They know their history dating back to ancient times, have museums, squares, and streets dedicated to their national hero Skanderbeg, and proudly wave their red and black double headed eagle flag whenever the opportunity arises. The best example of the intense national pride came last November when Albania celebrated a century of independence. In the days and weeks leading up to the 28th of November celebrations, red and black was everywhere. New double headed eagle statues were erected, flags were hung from every telephone wire and apartment block window, and car hoods were repainted with the country's flag. Everywhere I looked all I saw was a sea of red and black. The culmination of the Independence Day festivities was giant cake that was entered the Guinness Book of World Records. You can see the cake for yourself here.
Unique transportation system: Albania's transportation system is simultaneously archaic, developing, and modern. There is a rickety train system that stops at the borders and ferries that transport passengers in the most primitive of ways. Everyone seems to drive in Albania but driving is not for the faint of heart. From newly asphalt covered highways and stalled construction projects to pothole filled dirt paths and ancient cobblestone covered roads, you can drive on all of them here. On a single trip down the road you may encounter buses from another era, hundred thousand dollar vehicles, old Mercedes, furgons, and donkey carts. Drive down the road during the early morning or evening hours and you'll see babushka wearing women clutching pocketbooks standing along the road shoulders just waiting for a furgon to stop and pick them up. You are just as apt to see shepherds guiding their flocks along the highway as you are entire families riding on a single motor scooter. You never know what you will encounter as you round the corner but if you aren't fussy about your mode of transportation you really can get just about anywhere in Albania.
Dental tourism: I kid you not. Upon arriving in Albania I immediately noticed the large number of dental clinics that appeared to be located on every street corner in every city and town. Even the smallest of hamlets seems to have a resident dentist. Not all of the clinics looked clear or modern but they were there none the less. From young to old, the majority of Albanians I have met all have perfect sets of teeth. (This is especially true in the more urban areas). Even my nanny sports a bright white set of implants. I am a product of years of orthodontic work myself and have what I consider nice teeth. However, I have a fear of the dentist and dread going unless it is absolutely necessary. But after chipping a tooth I found myself sitting in an Albanian dental chair. Not only did I survive but I would return if I had to. So I can now attest to Albania's thriving dental industry. So if you need quality and affordable dental work done, combine a dental visit with a vacation and come to Albania.
The produce: I'm a foodie so I was excited to discover the never ending supply of fresh produce that fills the markets and roadside fruit and vegetable stands. Farmers and restaurants brag about their produce being organic and all natural which is due largely in part to their inability to afford chemicals and fertilizers. Rather than being a detriment, this makes the produce taste even better. Everything is local, fresh, and seasonal so I quickly learned that when you see it you must buy it because it just might not be there next week. While it has been fun to discover fruits and vegetables that are unique to this part of the world my favorite Mediterranean treats remain fresh figs and olives. In season, they are plentiful but grab them while you can since once they are gone you must wait until next year.
So come visit Albania. It is a country where old meets new on a daily basis. Your trip is sure to be an adventure and I promise that you won't be disappointed.