Oh, Albania. This post has sat in my draft items for months now, and every so often I’ll open it up, move around some words, completely delete others, and then call it a day. I have rewritten my conclusion four times. I have no idea how to convey in words the endearing chaos that is Albania.
But I have to. For the past couple of months I’ve been writing about the places I visited in the Balkans last summer, and I’m about to move on. Coming up next is Greece and then I’m going to switch my attention further north, so this is kind of the last chance I get.
The thing is, there are some wonderful blogs out there that give glowing reviews of Albania. I’ve read them, enjoyed them and wished I could say something similar. I have wondered whether I actually like Albania. I’ve even drawn up tables, with ‘for’ and ‘against’ columns. There would be heaps in the negative category and I would hardly jot any positive things down. On paper, literally, I should hate Albania. But I don’t.
The country is intriguing. These guys are the Ilyrians, the dudes who pre-date even the Greeks, so they’re technically more European than the rest of the continent. Their national history is dotted with main characters with names such as Zog and Skanderbeg. They cut themselves off from the rest of the world – try thinking of them as the European version of North Korea – for much of the twentieth century. They’re completely self-sustainable, having their own oil and plenty of farmland. It’s fascinating stuff.
It’s a strange thing, the fact that Albania has land borders with other countries. It borders the EU, for God’s sake. However, it feels like an island far away from Europe, with its own rules, customs and priorities. It certainly doesn’t feel like a country shmooshed in between others known for their aesthetics; such as Greece and Montenegro.
They shake their heads for yes and nod for no. There was a shooting at a polling booth during the national elections last year. Many live in residential fortresses, impenetrable due to centuries-old blood feuds. Over a hundred thousand bunkers dot the landscape, looking like massive overturned concrete mixing bowls. And the two parallel mountain ranges just keep going, going and going, as far as the eye can see.
But, in the nicest possible way, the country is a mess. Things hardly work, and I’m not just talking about the power points in my hotel room. No, you’re introduced to it as soon as you enter the country; sometimes I would have to bribe border guards to get us through nice and quickly, other times they’d wave us through without checking any paperwork or passports whatsoever. On one occasion we had a child beggar trying to get onto our bus parked in no man’s land, while our passports were getting stamped.
It’s a wonder that anything works at all; in 1997 most Albanians lost all of their savings after a pyramid scheme collapsed and the country descended into anarchy. We’re talking full armed rebellion and it was the Italians who ended up coming in and sorting the place out. Yes, the Italians. What does that say about the place?
After the border, we’d hit the road. There’s only a handful of sealed roads in the country, so one minute you’re on a reasonable dual carriageway and the next minute all you can see is dust. You literally climb off the road; it just stops suddenly and then it’s just sand and rocks.
You have to wait for the dust to clear however, because hiding behind it are potholes often the size of the bus. We’d drive at around twenty kilometres an hour for up to two hours, wiggling around the potholes on the well-worn path. We’d share the road with trucks, horses and carts and the odd man on a donkey. There would also be a high number of pedestrians, all plodding away with seemingly half of their possessions alongside them. You just knew that they were miles away from home.
As bad as the roads are, you don’t get the feeling that it will be like that long-term. You cannot for one second fault the Albanian work ethic. Coming from Greece and heading to Montenegro, perhaps the two laziest countries in Europe and if not the world, it’s even more evident. You don’t see that idleness you often see in struggling countries. No, you see people working. Everyone.
They’re paving the roads metre by metre, so every fortnight that we’d come through our journey would be a tad faster. In July, a bridge was deemed done enough – it wasn’t yet sealed but everyone began driving on it anyway.
The people of Albania are their blessing and their curse. It sounds cliched, but I was surprised to find the people I met in Albania among some of the warmest and enterprising I’ve ever met. For example, there’s a lovely lady in Gjirokaster; Mirjeta, who makes Albanian burek. She would chase me down each week to thank me for telling people to visit her shop. I told people to visit her because the burek was good, but she’d get up extra early each fortnight in order to make enough to feed a bunch of hungry Australians. The same two kids would hang around us in Tirana each time, flogging pens and tissues to us with a smile, kicking a football around with our driver. So they know how to cater to tourists.
So how could the people be the country’s curse, you’re asking? One word: Taken. Ever heard of the Albanian mafia? Of course you have. Everybody has, and that freaks a lot of people out big time. We’re talking about some of my passengers worried about venturing off the bus and jumping at any sudden movement. The Albanian mafia mainly concerns itself with the illegal arms and drugs trades, not necessarily with tourists, so fears are pretty unjustified. So it’s what I call the ‘Taken effect’ and it’s one of the main hurdles Albania faces in opening itself up to the world.
I didn’t see any of the coast when I was in Albania. That’s the area they’re trying their best to market to the rest of Europe, they’re calling it the ‘Albanian Riviera’. It’s working; pretty much all of the blogs I read which portrayed Albania quite positively dealt mainly with its coast. I got a short little glimpse of the water when we would drive through Durres, but that was it. Instead, I visited two cities – the capital, Tirana and one of the country’s World Heritage sites, Gjirokaster. Not by any means all that the country has to offer, but at least a nice taster.
However, I didn’t like the taste of Tirana. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but I just couldn’t find any redeeming features about it. Just about everything that would have been unique and historical in Tirana was demolished during the communist era, including its central bazaar and most of its mosques and churches. In their place, there’s the seriously horrible Palace of Culture and the tacky Italianate ministerial buildings, all designed by Mussolini’s architects.
That’s the very centre (and I really only took pictures of the nicer bits); venture out a bit more and it’s Soviet-style apartments galore, at least thankfully given a paint job in the last few years. There’s dozens, if not hundreds of new projects, all in various states of being finished and all built clearly without any proper planning system.
There are hardly any footpaths and there’s rubbish everywhere. Markets spring up wherever they can fit, meaning traffic chaos is inevitable. Once we were lucky enough to jump behind some mafia cars (distinguishable via their Mercedes’ completely blackened windows) and had a clear run through the city. All other times we were forced to do as the locals do; just use the horn and cross our fingers. It’s hard to believe that only two decades ago, private transport was banned in the country and people were resigned to using solely bikes or public buses.
I often found myself comparing Tirana to Asian cities, particularly due to the transport and planning problems. Plus, there just feels as if there’s so many people; it feels so much busier than a city of just 700,000 inhabitants. I remember lamenting the fact that it took an hour to walk about a kilometre in Ho Chi Minh City, but I wrote about it in a ‘oh, HCMC, aren’t you just so cute in your charming mayhem?’ way. But I never thought that in Tirana. Tirana just didn’t feel to me as if it had any character at all. Some people describe it as cosmopolitan, but I didn’t see it. I just saw it as concrete and dust.
The main exception for me, strangely enough, was the ugliest building in town. Enver Hoxha, essentially the country’s version of Stalin, was buried in a mausoleum just off Skanderbeg Square. He’s not there anymore, but his mausoleum is, and it’s an absolute shocker.
It’s been earmarked for demolishing for years, but for some reason the locals keep saving it. It’s almost as if it’s so bad, it’s good. It seems to be one of the rare things the Albanians agree upon.
Gjirokaster, on the other side of the country, is totally different. For one, it’s quiet. There’s just a few locals and tourists wandering the streets, even right in the middle of the roads. The street are steep, clinging to the sides of the hills, giving beautiful views at every turn. Gjirokaster reminds me of one of those reconstructed traditional villages you can find in almost every country in the world, but here it’s actually authentic.
Why is Gjirokaster a World Heritage site? Well, it’s because the communists didn’t bulldoze the town (and the town with which it shares the listing, Berat) and build ugly apartments like they did to most others. It’s full of traditional stone houses from the Ottoman period, plus a large castle overlooking the town and valley. It’s a tough hike up to the castle, especially in summer, but it’s worth it. And in typical quirky fashion, there’s even an American plane on show which was shot down after being presumed to be spying.
Gjirokaster has that sort of faded beauty to it – it looks well-cared for without being a rich city by any means – and I found myself to be quite the fan. Men would sit outside cafes, drinking with the sun on their lined faces and seemingly solving the world’s problems. Cars would pull up – always a Mercedes – and their drivers would join in the conversations from the car, forgetting about blocking the road or other such petty things. It was a world away from the nation’s capital.
I suppose that’s why I don’t dislike Albania. Hey, it’s not like I’m going to be running back or anything, but I don’t take the view of one of my friends who believes, ‘they should just detonate the whole thing and start again’. There is something there that makes me smile, despite there being twenty more things that make me frown. And that there, kind of sums up Albania.
For me, Albania brings up a lot of questions about the reasons why we travel to places. On this trip, we were driving from Istanbul to Split, taking in ancient cities and gorgeous scenery. Albania didn’t really fit, it was kind of in the way. If it wasn’t where it is located, we probably wouldn’t have gone there. In fact, if it was easier to get in and out of Kosovo with a large group, we probably would have gone via Macedonia.
But now we come to the point where I’m kind of at a loss. Why don’t we want to go there? Because it’s a bit of a basket case? Because people say it’s unsafe? Or is it because at the end of the day, we want to see things worthy of being called ‘sights’? In my opinion, Tirana has no sights (through no fault of its own). Gjirokaster is a lovely town, but it’s really not in the same calibre of other small towns on the trip, like Kotor and Parga. You wouldn’t drive hours (and countries) out of your way to see it. Or maybe you would, if Ottoman architecture is your thing. No judgement.
There are plenty of places in the world to visit. You’re bound to like quite a few, and turn your nose up at others. I try and be quite honest on this blog; I’m not going to sugar-coat all of my experience and praise everywhere. I’m not going to say that Albania should be at the top of your bucket list for this year (like Lonely Planet said in 2011) to sound edgy.
I appreciate Albania for other reasons. At the end of the day, I have some memories of my time in the country that will stay with me forever. It’s one of the last places in Europe where you’ll see donkeys on the road, farmers tending their crops by hand and a nation still getting built. We see so many places these days that all look the same, and I’m not just talking about the prevalence of McDonald’s and Starbucks. I’m talking about the more regular things you see, like people’s clothes, outer-suburban factories and movie theatres.
So if you are a bit over that, go and see Albania. It’s not your average tourist destination, and I’m sure it will frustrate you at times. But I can’t even promise that you’ll like it. However, you’ll get to see – and if you’re lucky, experience – a place that time sort of forgot about.
What’s your take? Have you been to Albania, or somewhere you weren’t sure you quite liked?