Albania - reasons to visit soon

As a travel destination Albania is an under-discovered gem. How many of your friends have been there? I’m guessing not many. When I visited recently with my son, our plane was packed, yet it was hard to spot any British tourists. Most passengers were UK-resident young Albanians heading home for the holidays.

As I was on a research trip ahead of publication of my novel ‘After Leaving the Village’, which opens in Albania, we seized the opportunity to quiz our fellow passengers about their lives. Artan (not his real name) was typical. He moved to London in 1998, learned English, worked three jobs, developed skills in the building trade and now owns a company employing six people (including two Brits). “Eight years ago, I tried to go back to Albania to open a hotel with my brother,” he told us. “The country’s changed but I’ve changed more. I couldn’t fit in.”

So, if local people are leaving to make a life elsewhere, why would tourists want to go there?

To stay ahead of the crowds

During our trip, we often had whole galleries within museums to ourselves and enjoyed the most private of private views. One such visit was to the National Gallery of Art in Tirana, which features a stunning collection of twentieth century Socialist Realist art.

Socialist Realism was new to me and I love the oxymoronic name of the genre. Vast canvases depicted happy workers, often with a heroic-looking female centre-stage. There were cheery peasants, happy factories and ecstatic industrial workers beaming out their message of nostalgia: We had the best of everything. In those times artists were controlled. I’m not sure if they were told what to paint but they were certainly told what not to! Any pictures judged not happy enough were removed from the walls. It seems fake news flourished in those times, as now.

Tourist numbers are on the rise and, according to a report in the Romanian Economic Journal in June 2017, the Albanian government’s draft strategy is for tourism to contribute 8% to the economy by 2020. The number of cruise ships calling at the ports of Durres and Saranda is increasing rapidly. This is great news for the economy and for job creation but, if you want a leisurely trip, far from the madding crowds, visiting soon could be a safe strategy.

To catch a glimpse of the ancient world

Some of us would struggle to locate Albania on a map. We might bracket it together with the former Eastern bloc but Albanians will quickly put you right – they regard themselves as Europeans. Situated on the Balkan Peninsula, bordered by Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece, Albania stares across the Adriatic Sea at the heel of Italy. The island of Corfu is a short ferry ride from Saranda in the south.

The problem for a small country at the crossroads of civilisations is that it tends to get trampled on. Now, I know reading a potted history might make you glaze over like a Grecian urn, but I’ve shrunk this one right down. Read it, if you can. Otherwise, skip three paragraphs.

It’s thought that Albania’s first inhabited settlements date back to 100,000BC - the Palaeolithic (Stone Age) period. Artefacts from excavations around Korca date from the Neolithic period (6000-2600BC); Bronze Age and Iron Age (2100 BC) sites have also been discovered. The Albans, who gave the country its name, were descendants of an ancient Illyrian tribe. For me, the name stirs up a memory from Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ where the sea captain tells ship-wrecked Viola, in Act 1, scene 2: “This is Illyria, lady”.

Following three Illyrian-Roman Wars, Albania became part of the Roman Empire in the second century BC. Julius Caesar visited more than once but, when the Roman Empire was divided in 395 BC, Illyria shuffled across to become part of the Byzantine Empire. The city of Durres stood on a key trade route between Rome and Constantinople. As centuries passed, Christianity came to the region: churches were built and bishops appointed. Visigoths, Huns and Slavs attacked and, by 1344, Albania came under Serbian rule. In the late 14th century, the Ottomans began dabbling in the region and, by 1417, had captured key cities. Enter Skanderbeg, a nobleman and national hero, who led the resistance for 25 years but, by 1478, the Ottoman regime had taken control and stayed for 400 years.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a nationalist movement sprang up and the Albanian language became a unifying force for the diverse population of different faiths: Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics. Independence came in November 1912 but, when the first World War broke out, Albania was trampled over again, occupied at different times by Austro-Hungarian, Italian and French troops. After a period of turmoil, Albania became a monarchy under King Zog 1, whose reign survived until 1939 when Mussolini’s troops moved in, followed by Nazi forces in 1943. When World War II ended, Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha took control.

Albania now boasts state-of-the-art museums that bring its rich history and antiquity vividly alive. When we visited Durres Archaeological Museum, there were only a handful of tourists as we strolled around admiring perfectly preserved Graeco-Roman monuments and artefacts from the cult of Aphrodite. There are urns and amphora (used for transporting wine or oil) retrieved from shipwrecks and still encrusted with barnacles, and perfectly preserved miniature glass objects that I coveted for my perfume bottle collection. A short stroll uphill from the museum brought us to a vast, part-excavated Roman amphitheatre, dating from the time of Emperor Trajan - second century AD - that would once have seated 20,000 people.

With so many archaeological sites to pick from, and so little time, we chose Apollonia. We started with the museum, housed in a 14th-century former monastery. It was so quiet we were treated to a private tour by the museum director. Outside, the excavated site is set in rolling hills with stunning views. The photo (above) shows the Odeon theatre at Apollonia but the stunning triumphal arch, with its five pillars intact, is an even more iconic monument. Sadly, our photos of the arch were marred by rubbish left over from local families' picnics. Founded by Greeks in 588 BC, Apollonia became a city state, with its own currency. When Rome took control, in 229 BC, it evolved into a cultural centre with a famous school of philosophy and Julius Caesar sent his nephew, Octavius (who later became Emperor Augustus) here to study

To discover a country that was closed to the world for half of the twentieth century

For almost fifty years of the twentieth century, Albania was isolated. The leader, Enver Hoxha, broke links with the USSR and modelled his regime on the Chinese Cultural Revolution, forbidding people from practicing religion so Albania became an atheist state. To read more about this period, see https://www.helenmatthewswriter.com/post/albania-beyond-the-bunkers - a blog I prepared earlier.

Even after the regime ended, Albanians endured years of political and economic chaos throughout much of the 1990s. Yet, since then, it’s a tribute to the country and its people that Albania has become a functioning parliamentary democracy (established under the 1998 constitution), the economy has stabilised and signs of modernisation and progress are everywhere.

To enjoy food, glorious food

On our first night in Tirana, Alex and I found a local restaurant in a leafy square serving traditional food.  We studied the menu and chose three inexpensive dishes to share as a starter, assuming they were meze. We also ordered two main courses. The waiter gave us an odd look but brought our beers, and then our food, presenting us with the equivalent of five main courses! One important lesson learned – just because the price is small, the portions may not be.

On our second evening in Tirana we ate at Markata E Peshkut, a fish restaurant in the old market. We chose seafood from the menu, which was fairly limited. Luckily, the seafood was excellent because the waiter’s command of English wasn’t good enough to tell us about the fresh fish counter, where you could browse the catch of the day and choose your own dinner. Another day in Albania, another lesson learned.

By the time we moved on to the Ottoman city of Berat, we had wised up to the workings of the restaurant system, but our newly acquired skills weren’t needed. The food at Hotel Mangalemi, where we sampled the local speciality, birek (a kind of pie with many different fillings) and a variety of traditionally cooked meats, was so good we didn’t need to venture out to eat.

Albanians are friendly people with a tradition of hospitality ingrained in the culture. Travellers will find it fantastic value for money. Future increases in tourism will help promote development and create employment for the younger generation, so perhaps they'll no longer need to leave Albania to seek opportunities abroad. If you can cope with a few linguistic challenges and want to see Albania before a new wave of tourism hits its shores, now's a great time to visit.

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