Albania & Kosovo 2016

Day 1
Kosovo, a new country and a new adventure, but again, like previous wonderful trips, we are awaken at dawn by the muezzin and the call to prayer from the mosque outside our window. Other mosques soon join in and the spine tingling sound echoes around the silent sleeping city as the golden light of the rising sun brings in the new day. What a great way to start a new adventure.

Exploring Europe’s youngest capital today has been fascinating: Kosovo has of course seen such appalling humanitarian atrocities and bloodshed in such recent times, but now, for the first time in its long proud history, it has an identity and it has independence; and the optimism brought about by these monumental changes is palpable as you walk around its vibrant streets. The city feels full of a determination to have a good time. This is we guess what liberation feels like, but how we can understand what they have been through. How can we understand? How can we, really? 
It is little wonder though, as you walk these streets, that the Kosovar eschewed both Slavs and Serbs; this place is indisputably Albanian. Albanian is the mother tongue, and the slightly sinister flag emblem – the double headed black eagle – is far more in evidence than the nascent Kosovar equivalent. One is given to wonder whether it was independence which these people really craved, or whether in reality it was in fact a return to the fatherland. Whatever, they fought passionately for their freedom and statues of the modern day warrior heroes are dotted all around the city.

And so we have explored, listened and learned today. The Albanian dominance followed 500 years of Ottoman occupation, so a heavy Turkish influence pervades the city too. There is a sizeable clash between old and new, as you would expect in a newly liberated place, a clash which was previously also heavily influenced during the Tito-lead communist era, when the Soviet mantra of “destroy the old, create the new” was adopted with indecent vigour. More than half of Kosovo’s historic buildings and monuments were destroyed during this time. Is that not what we mean by sacrilege?

We visited the Ethnological Museum today, which is in reality a grand Ottoman house restored to just how it would have been. Our guide Valon told us a phrase of the Kosovar people, that they can give “bread, salt and heart”, meaning that even if they have little, they will share what they have, including the love which is in their heart. . And from the moment we arrived here this has been so evident, they are such warm and welcoming people, their smile is their opening gambit, despite all the violence and killing that these people have seen. From the airport passport control guys to those who come to help as soon as they see you studying your map in the street, so far everyone is welcoming and friendly. Yet we have heard this is even more true of homeland Albanians. Well, we will find out very soon!

Day 2

And now the real adventure is under way as we pick up the hire car and head off across Kosovo, heading directly towards the Rugova Mountains in the West. The countryside is greener than we expected, lush and well farmed with maize the dominant crop. Our diversion en route to Valbona is Visoki Decani Monastery, in the middle of Kosovo but still inhabited by Serbian monks, much to the irritation of some Kosovars who want to rid their country of all remaining Serbs. Nestled amongst the trees at the foot of the mountains this beautiful ancient monastery is protected by the Kosavar and Italian armies, to whom we have to surrender our passports for the duration of our visit.

Crossing the Rugovas turns out to be a good deal easier than crossing the Albanian border, as the rather stern guard takes an age studying our documents before waving us through.

But now we are here, in seriously unchartered territory. I don’t think I even know anyone who’s been to Albania! We drop down to Bajram Curri and hook a right to quickly join the river.

The drive through the gorge and mountains is spectacular, the fast flowing river below crystal clear with an unlikely blue hue. The deep green foliage, the crystal waters, the impossibly blue sky and the white outcrops of the highest mountains make for wonderful and breathtaking scenery. It is a beautiful and exciting drive, bringing us at last to Valbona. We reach the centre of the village, which has pretty much nothing! A few shacks, a handful of derelict properties, some half built houses, cows wandering everywhere, this is not what we expected! The first “hotel” we approached was full, but he had a “traditional” room we could have for the night. He led us down the lane, though a field to a small house surrounded by medieval looking hay stacks and chickens. We were led up a narrow staircase and shown a small room where 2 small boys (twins) were sleeping and told we could have their room!!! Well, we thanked them for their hospitality but had to decline this kind offer, really was a strange situation. We tried next door and were led to what we can only describe as a large beach hut, like a garden shed with beds in, but it was clean and had a bathroom so with darkness not far away we took it. And as we wondered if we had done the right thing we could hear the sound of the cows and their bells echoing thoughout the otherwise silent valley, the sun setting behind the beautiful mountains and we thought, this might just be the start of another great adventure..

Day 3

We have been to some wonderful places and seen some wonderful scenery, but wow Valbona is up there with the very best. It’s hard to know where to begin, this valley is so beautiful it is going to be hard to put into words. The impossibly clear water racing through the rocks, the sound of the crashing river, the scent of the wild thyme, the chiming cow bells, the hot sun, the deep blue sky, the huge imposing sides of the gorge, the multi coloured grasshoppers, the trees laden with cherries and elderberries, the peace …. we have no idea how to say in words how wonderful the natural beauty of this place is.

Last night was very rustic, the place really a campsite but with no visitors, so they had filled some of their 5 “chalets”, the garden sheds. We ate from the limited menu, basic Albanian fayre, vegetable burek and copious quantities of goats milk yoghurt, and then returned home to find a black scorpion had taken residence on our floor!

We have moved now though, to Residenz, a guest house owned by the valley’s leading lights – see for more. A bit more comfortable than the garden shed, still a little on the rustic side but luxury by Albanian standards, and in a fabulous remote location with awesome views of the mountains, from our wooden balcony. 

We walk all day, three separate walks circling the village and the river, climbing high, dropping back down, scrambling up and down the scree. We taste wild berries, we put our feet in the ice cold rushing river, we soak up the sun. And at the very end of the third walk, we stumble upon a picnic party, and that phrase “salt, bread and heart” comes to life – we are invited to join in and we are given food and beer, and a huge welcome. We chat with them for ages, around a dozen members of the same family, only the youngsters speak English, and they are so very welcoming. We spend a great half hour, and in the end we are given a souvenir, a plastic bottle of their home made Raki. We tasted it – fire water!! – but the next problem will be how to smuggle it home!

Tonight, on the terrace amongst the trees, at Rilindja half a mile away, the sound of cicadas, just stars and candlelight, a dinner of trout straight from the river and a stew of goat’s heart and goat’s liver, absolutely typical traditional local food and both dishes absolutely delicious. Fabulous. 

Today is what travel is about. This is close to our idea of heaven.

Day 4

The Residenz, where we are now billeted, is a beautifully kept 4-storey building nestled in the valley which not so long ago housed the collective farming fields of the Communist era. The rooms are very comfortable and welcoming, and the view from the balcony is simply fabulous. It is an annexe of Rilindja, where we head for breakfast and dinner, both are run by Albert and Catherine, who make the place so chilled that you are immediately their friends and straight away you feel like you will never want to leave! It is the hub of the valley, and there is a wonderful spirit of togetherness amongst staff and guests. As you enjoy the divine fresh food and chat with those around you, you feel privileged to be part of this transient community, albeit all too briefly. It is simply fabulous.

The walk home last night was in pitch darkness, darkness like we in the UK have long forgotten, and with not a hint of light spillage round here, the starry sky is stunning, we never see anything like this back home, like so many giant diamonds spilled out and sparkling in the sky, the galaxy looks so close, the sky just seems full of stars. We stop and stare, in amazement. It’s breathtaking, truly. We are escorted all the way home by Pango, the resident dog, he took us through the darkness right to our home to keep us safe, leading us every step of the way. Good dog!

And talking of darkness, you can’t visit here without mentioning power cuts. Every day, regular intervals, the power goes on and off, we knew beforehand that the system was weak, but it’s just simply part of life here, several times each and every day.

We walk miles again today, climbing the mountain to a cave where an Albanian folk hero, Bajram Curri, hid from the enemy. When we finally reach the cave, after a challenging climb sometimes on all fours to scale the rocks, it is spooky and atmospheric, not least because we haven’t seen a soul since we started the climb. The heat is intense, the climb steep, the wayfinding needs concentration, but we get there.

This area is well populated with brown bears, the trail maps all have instructions on what to do if you are confronted by one, the best advice being to make noise (they suggest singing!), as the bears are shy. Despite the warnings we kind of want to see one, but it doesn’t happen, though we do see traces, both droppings ( they DO poop in the woods!), and fur on the trees where they’ve been back scratching. But no sighting – clearly Michaela’s rendition of “Bear Necessities” was enough to scare them off!!

Valbona is wonderful, truly magical, everything about it has hauled us in and captured our imagination. One of our travel mottos is, don’t stay too long, move on while you still love a place. But here will be the hardest place ever to leave behind. Neither of us want to leave, the valley is so beautiful, Rilindja is as fabulous a place as we have ever stayed. 

But tomorrow holds more excitement, and there’s a whole world out there…

Day 5

Last night, our last night in Valbona, we just had to have the liver and heart stew again, it’s delicious. And in a repeat of the night before, we walked home gazing at the stars, the family dog again taking us all the way to our door. It’s hard to leave somewhere you love as much as this, but on our plan for this holiday, today is one of the big highlights. So we wave goodbye to this wonderful place and its people and head South.

The ferry down Lake Koman is listed by Lonely Planet as one of the World’s great boat trips, and they do know what they’re talking about. En route to the ferry at Fierze, we stop for coffee and ATM at Bajram Curri and arrive in good time for the ferry. The 3-hour boat trip is amazing, passing through steep gorges, pine covered mountains, sheer cliffs. It’s called a lake ferry but in reality the first couple of hours is a river cruise – the Valbones River has changed character now. No longer the young frisky mountain river, it’s now broader and deeper, without losing its wonderful blue tinge. Gradually over the three hours, the terrain around the river softens, the rocky cliffs disappear, and pines become vines.

The sun never leaves us throughout, and we feel pretty tanned by the time we reach Koman itself. Our plan was always to spend the next night here in Koman, but that theory is soon blown right out the window! Leaving the ferry in Koman is very odd – you drive off the little boat’s ramp, and straight into what looks like a short tunnel. In fact, the tunnel continues in pitch darkness, on a narrow road, for ages, until eventually you emerge on to a potholed, dusty track which hugs the river bank for miles. This isn’t a road as we would know it, and it’s slow progress for what seems an awfully long time. There isn’t a Koman either, so we start to rethink our plans for where our bed may be for tonight.

So all we can do is start on tomorrow’s journey, at least we’re heading in the right direction, we have plenty of daylight left, and it’s only 4.30. After avoiding potholes and the drop into the river on our right for what seems ages, we eventually hit the main road, and turn South once more.Ok, what now? The villages are tiny, it may be some time before we get sorted. The main drag then passes through Mjede, a one horse town stretched along the road. There is a single Hotel sign so obviously we turn in to investigate, not least because it’s next door to the mosque. And what a strange place we have stumbled upon!

They are completely thrown by tourist visitors; they fetch their 10-year old son as he is the only one who speaks any English. They welcome us in. The room is clean and modern (no air con but don’t be choosy!), we have a balcony with a great view across the town, best of all, the restaurant is clearly where the people of Mjede go!! You can only wonder why anyone would build a hotel like this, in the middle of nowhere, way off the tourist trail, and then charge just 30 euros per room including breakfast!

We have a quick wander up and down the main road, but our best option is clearly to eat here. And magically, something we so enjoy; the menu is just in Albanian, the waiters have no English. It’s just down to good fortune. We love this!! We have little idea what we have ordered. The food is so good, and so authentic. And like Valbona, no matter which dish you order, the goats milk yoghurt comes with it in large quantities! As a one night stop where we would have accepted whatever we could find, this is a real bonus! 

Day 6
Reading back over yesterday’s words, we probably didn’t do justice to the incredible scenery on the ferry trip; it is truly special. We must be getting accustomed to these amazing views

We fell asleep last night to the sound of barking dogs and awoke this morning to the call to prayer and a cacophony of cockerels! And for the first time on the trip, it’s cloudy and the sun is struggling to get through. That’s not so bad though, given that today was always the day for our long drive down South, to the coast.The drive down is in parts good but not pretty, until we reach the mountains again, spectacular!! We drive through the mountain range, steep roads, villages cascading down the mountains, it is spectacular and like a rally drive. We arrive at our chosen destination to be disappointed, a pretty bay but a bit too scrubby. But the beauty of our type of travel is, we can move on. And we do, over the next mountain and down to Himare, tucked in a bay, and find an apartment above the lapping waves, at a ridiculously cheap price. And so we’re settled for a few days.  

Himare isn’t paradise in anybody’s book, but first impressions are that it’s a holiday destination for Albanians, there aren’t many others here, it’s a little resort-y therefore but it has a pleasant enough vibe. We discovered that our landlady speaks Greek, there is a Greek/Albanian crossover here. Anyway, it meant I could talk to her so she took a shine to us. Her son could speak a little English, and conveyed that every Albanian boys dream is to come to England. Not the first time it’s been said to us since we arrived, but this lad says he would give the family home, the apartments AND the bar they own, in exchange for my passport! And adds, wistfully, that, since the referendum, their dream is gone for ever. 

On our first night in Valbona, the “garden shed” night, we’d tried an Albanian red, and it was awful. Tonight, we give it a second go, and again it tastes like something that would ruin your salad!  Won’t try that again! In between, it’s been Vranac, a Montenegro wine, which is a whole lot better!

Food wise, they do eat a lot of cheese and yoghurt here, strangely the yoghurt comes with virtually every dish – except breakfast, which always contains a slab of salty cheese. Breakfast in Mjede also included a plateful of fried eggs – no less than 9 between us!!
On the way home from dinner tonight, we are called in to join our landlady’s family at their bar, and given beer on the house. Tough life…

Day 7

We wake to the sound of waves lapping on the beach under our balcony, today is the day to chill out. A lazy start, breakfast at a nearby cafe overlooking the azure blue sea, so clear and inviting. We stroll around the bay, it’s hot and sunny, we stop for frappe then hit the beach for serious sunbathing and swimming. And so chill for the day. At least that’s the plan, until we go to lunch, and the storm comes over the mountains. Lightning, thunder and torrential rain for the next hour or so, and, when it passes, the town hums to the sound of generators as the storm has brought yet another power cut. 

The fishing fleet sails back into the tiny port, a crowd of people arrive, we investigate and the day’s catch has been unloaded and the locals and restauranteurs are bidding for the best fish and price. Himare is trapped between the mountains and the sea, and is fairly isolated as a result, and it is very plain that the daily catch is vital to the local economy.

And so we come down to the waterfront for our evening, we settle into the bar with the coolest music, and talk about where to eat. Half way down our first beer, there is a huge flash of lightning, and the whole bay plunges into darkness as the power goes off once more…

Day 8

We were given reason to smile at dinner last night as the waiter tells us we are the only Brits that he’s seen in Himare all year – how pleasing is that! Not altogether surprising that Brits are a rarity given how difficult it is to get here, but to be the only ones seen all summer is rather satisfying.

Now we have had 2 lazy beach days, time for action again now. This town caters for the Albanian holiday makers and food is very different from the rural and mountain areas. Perhaps Albanians on holiday don’t want to eat the same as at home, and so the cuisine in Himare is dominated by Italian and Greek restaurants. We have found only one restaurant selling itself as traditional Albanian, and it’s the only one that is always empty! What is evident is that all the food is fresh, either straight out of the sea, bred in the mountains behind or grown around the village. They seem to fill every bit of spare ground in the village with pepper, tomato, courgette and aubergine plants so the vegetables are delicious, mostly grilled and served with olive oil, fresh herbs and garlic.  

Tonight we decide to stay here for a few more days, until we move on to Berat, and use Himare as a base for exploring the area. The bay is very relaxing, and our cheap apartment is good. And the vibe here is peaceful enough to make us feel very chilled. 

Day 9

Four days since we arrived in Himare and we feel very settled here now, it has become a familiar temporary home in that pleasing way that holiday places do. We know for sure now that this is a holiday destination for Albanians, but we also now know that the “season” ends today, so it will be interesting to see the changes tomorrow. There is already a sense of winding down and two of our new friends (well, waiters), have said they’re returning home this week.   

We love the fact that there is a souvla (spit roast), right across the road from our apartment, the smell of the roasting lamb is so good – not done it yet, but it’s on our list before we move on! 

Today we visit the chora, high up overlooking the sea, a maze of tiny silent streets, crumbling, deserted houses, overgrown and neglected vines. Reaching the top, the sprawling remains of the once proud Kastro now just host the wild herbs and ancient fig and olive trees.  The views back down to the shore and inland to the mountains are spectacular, the heat is intense, the silence deafening. Once again the scent of thyme fills the air. Improbably, parts of the castle are still inhabited, restored sections forming homes for some. We meet one of the residents, a lone man picking figs, he smiles and hands some of them to us. He is Greek and lives here in summer and in Athens in winter. We talk for a while and he tells us that the mill we’ve been looking at is in fact an ancient olive press, dating from 1450, remarkably the huge stone wheels still look serviceable.

After the chora, we briefly visit another bay, Livadh, but the hottest day so far soon sends us home to our own beach.

We are now quite taken with Himare, the mixture of the relaxed holiday feeling whilst being wholly for Albanians creates a very chilled atmosphere which we have enjoyed. We intend now to explore a bit more of this area before we finally move on.

Day 10

One of the things you often have to get used to when backpacking is cold showers, and here is no exception. Solar power is the usual energy source for hot water, so you get accustomed to cold showers in the morning and hot at night. It’s a small price to pay.

As planned, we explore the area a bit today; we head first to Borsh, or Borshi, everywhere here has two spellings, Himare is also Himara. Borsh is a small village but is home to both a ruined mountain top castle and a natural spring; not much is left of the castle but its position on the mountain top must have made it pretty impenetrable. The spring though is very much still active, in a rather unexpected way. The water from the spring cascades down the hillside and, as it hits the village, there is a secret paradise, terraces amongst the waterfalls, shaded from the harsh sun by ancient plane trees like an oasis in the harsh backdrop of the barren mountains, the most amazing setting for a bar restaurant. The tables are arranged at different levels, with the water crashing down around and beside you, no matter where you sit. A restaurant in the middle of a waterfall- how inspired is that idea!? It’s a shame it’s midday and we can’t have a few beers here!!  

Our next stop is Porto Palermo, once a small island but now attached to the mainland by a man made causeway. A well preserved and unusual castle, a myriad of tunnels with battlements above, built by Ali Pasha, another Albanian hero, and one who liked to break new architectural ground. We’ve actually visited another of his houses before, in Ioninna in Greece. And as always in countries of this part of the world this important monument is deserted and you are free to clamber amongst these ancient stones and can really feel the history.   

We have learned on this trip that Albania’s 20th century isolation was due in part to their Communist Government actually disassociating itself from Moscow; its closest ally was in fact China, until the death of Chairman Mao. On the drive back two remnants of this era are evident; one, a cluster of the bunkers which are literally all over Albania; built by the government just in case they were invaded. They are odd little tortoise shaped concrete bunkers, and they really are everywhere.  

The second is a man made sea tunnel under the mountain just north of Porto Palermo; this is where the USSR hid some of its submarines from the eyes of the World during the Cold War, and, when Tirana split from Moscow, the Russians simply left them there. Folklore says they are still there, bricked up inside the tunnel. 

The weather seems to be breaking now; there is a wind blowing through Himare tonight and the sea has changed character. And perhaps most telling of all, the locals are battening down the hatches and securing parasols and tables against the oncoming storm. Feels like we’re in for something…

Day 11

The threat of storm turned out to be a colossal understatement. We were first awoken around 1.40 by a flickering light in the room; no, not in the room, it was non stop lightning out over the sea. The sea itself was now starting to really crash in, next came the wind howling around outside the apartment, accompanied by pouring, lashing rain. And then the storm started in earnest; for nearly four hours, until just before daylight, constant lightning, unbelievable massive thunder claps, howling wind, lashing rain. Each time it seemed to be slowing, it came again with blinding lightning and crashing thunder, probably the most ferocious and longest lasting thunder storm either of us have ever witnessed.  We woke to a strange calm, expecting devastation, but instead the town was simply reassembled, nothing now out of place, sheeps heads turning in the souvla and little evidence of the storm, just puddles. 

However the temperature has dropped and the skies are grey, and over breakfast we decide it’s time to leave the coast and move on. We say our goodbyes to Marianna, our landlady, and her family, and head off in the direction of Berat, our next destination. The journey is varied, coastal, then next back up over the treacherous mountain roads, then down to dirty, industrial towns, next flat rural agricultural plains. And then it appears, Berat, an ancient Ottoman town cascading down the hillside, the town of a thousand windows, its beauty not lost despite the closed in weather.  

And oh the weather is bad. It began to rain over the top of the mountains, since when it has steadily deteriorated and we enter Berat under grey skies and with the rain tumbling down. But we find a great hotel in a converted Ottoman house right in the cobbled streets of the old town, with a reputation for a terrific authentic Albanian restaurant. 

So given the rain we eat at the hotel’s rooftop (sheltered) restaurant, gazing across at the stepped Ottoman houses, and it’s fabulous. If you love offal, Albania is the place. Rich, tasty, tender offal in deep, reduced onion sauces – heavenly!!

Ready to explore this historic place now, so here’s hoping the rain stops by tomorrow.

Day 12

The rain hammers down through the night and over breakfast but as we climb the steep cobbled streets up to the castle, the clouds suddenly part and the sun returns. 

And Berat Castle turns out to be a magical place; only at the very top do you find ruins, the rest is still the citadel built centuries ago within what would have been the city walls. Much of the citadel is still inhabited, tiny ancient properties home to people existing way up above Berat itself, in this peaceful and remote community.   

The backdrop to this ancient place is mountains and a patchwork of olive groves and vineyards in the foothills below. The Ottoman part of Berat is in two halves, one either side of the river, Mangalem, once predominantly Muslim and Gorica, which was Christian, athough there is now no real difference between the two. Both are equally beautiful and an array of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses reaching high into the hills. 

Ambling around the Mangalem area in particular is magical, tiny alley ways wending between these unique properties, steep climbs and tight walls forming a hillside maze. But the real joy of Ottoman Berat is to simply look at it from afar, it is genuinely unique and is a wonderful sight, both in broad daylight and then again when lit after dark.

So we wander through these tiny streets, we take lunch across the river looking back at this beautiful place, we take a stroll around the newer part of the town with its imposing university building dominating that part of the skyline.

And all the while, the colossal mountains, in particular the giant Mount Tomori, watch over the town below.

Later, after dark, the new Boulevard Republikka is alive with people, enjoying their evening against the wonderful backdrop of the Ottoman houses on the hillside. 

No wonder Berat is a UNESCO world heritage site; it is not just beautiful but genuinely unique. Few cities can really claim to be this unique; Venice is one; Berat is another.

It’s been a hot day, at times humid, and tonight the lightning flashes and once more the thunder rumbles around the mountains. 

It isn’t hard to find genuine traditional Albanian restaurants in Berat, and we finish our day with another terrific and authentic meal, looking across this splendid place.

Day 13

We start the day in the medieval centre comprising the Kings Mosque, one of the oldest in Albania, the Helvetic sect prayer room and the Dervishes’ living quarters. The prayer room is a little like an old fashioned school with wooden benches and desks, the ceiling ornate carved wood beautifully painted and with frescoes on the walls. The mosque door is ajar, we take a peek and are allowed inside. We take off our shoes and walk along the carpeted path and through the wooden doors, rugs adorn the floor, the ceiling heavily carved wood, as is the ladies balcony, the Mihrab painted an incongruous green, walls plain white, their only decoration an occasional carved Koranic verse. This mosque is still used but as suggested by the inconsistent Muezzin call to prayer, it would appear not to be well attended, perhaps a remnant of when Albania declared itself to be an atheist state in the 1960’s. The small number of Churches is also a legacy of this era. 

We move on to the Ethnographic Museum, a multi tiered Ottoman house beatifully restored and a true insight into life here in Berat. What a different life it was here, the women cooked for the guests and were then allowed to be part of the evening but not allowed to be seen by male visitors at any time, kept behind wooden screens or shut away in the kitchen. It’s a beautiful house though.

This trip has been a fabulous foodie experience, such an abundance of authentic and traditional options, needs a dedicated page (done, read it!). And today scores again! As we wander through the tiny streets, we stumble upon a tiny place called “Lili”, attached to one of the Ottoman houses in Mangalem. It’s just a private house with a few wooden tables on the rear terrace, where the family prepare the food in their own kitchen. We order from the menu, which by necessity is of course limited, and the mother and daughter set about cooking our lunch on the family stove, whilst we start the carafe of red which, rather wonderfully, is made on the premises by Grandad, from the vines hanging above our heads. We are joined by an Austrian couple also on an Albania tour, who are just as enthralled as us in finding this little place. The food is delicious and we spend a lovely hour exchanging travel stories and enjoying the food, after which we are joined by our host and given free raki, again made by Grandad! 

It’s our last night in Berat tonight, we move on to our final destination of Tirana in the morning. Berat is a spectacular and welcoming place, and, like everywhere we’ve been on this trip, its friendly and helpful people have made our stay both easy and enjoyable!

Day 14

And so it’s goodbye Hotel Mangalemi-Tomi and Berat and hello Tirana after an easy journey over and a crowded bus into the city. 

We take lunch pretty much straight away, once again it’s good quality and, to our surprise, no more expensive than the rest of the country has been.

We never expected Tirana to be an attractive city, the obliteration of most ancient sites coupled with Enver Hoxha’s communist rule put paid to that and our first impression on arrival mirrored our expectations. Ugly buildings, construction sites, grey, drab, graffiti, everything you would imagine a former communist city to be. But the history is interesting, the people still friendly and there is so much to see tomorrow.

Tonight though, we head to Blloku, a district which until 1991 was inhabited solely by leaders of the communist government and closed to all others. As we all now know, they lived in splendour here whilst the rest of the population lived in hard working poverty ruled by fear and manipulation. Freedom hasn’t come easily for this nation by any means, and still all is not well for all. But this district of Tirana is now a vibrant, up and coming area, the place to be seen , cool bars and full of life. Prices are suddenly twice as much as anywhere else in Albania, even a few hundred yards away. Literally twice as much, but the area is alive and has that unmistakable vibe of a capital city. 
Reading and learning the history of Albania has been fascinating, and here in Blloku the past is gone, and the newly liberated generation hold sway. Only 19 years ago this city echoed to the sound of revolutionary gunfire; now the soundtrack is music and chatter. 

And tonight we will share the new.

Day 15

We spend our final day of this fantastic journey strolling around Tirana and absorbing its mixed and troubled history, and wishing this trip could continue as there is so much more to learn. Like most if not all capital cities, it is very different from the rest of the country, indeed it is hard sometimes to think that we are still in the same country as the other places we have visited on this trip. But as our walk unfolds and the city reveals its history, we cannot help but be fascinated.

Never mind its long history of Roman and Ottoman occupation, or the 20th century Italian influences, just absorbing the recent past is stimulation enough. The advent of communist rule in its most extreme version, the isolation from the rest of the World, even Moscow, the iron fist ruling of Enver Hoxha the Communist leader, and, even more recent, the difficulties brought about by Albania’s move to democracy and the enormous financial collapse of pyramid investment schemes in the 1990s which bankrupted virtually everyone who had invested. This collapse lead to major civil unrest here less than two decades ago, and the scars are still evident. Elsewhere in Albania, wellbeing is still very much based on regional micro economies and much of the population remains poor. But here in Tirana there are definite signs of prosperity, both personal and political, and the city is at last emerging from a prolonged hibernation. Not for everyone of course – the streets are full of beggars and there are many poorly housed and homeless – but the difference here is that there is also clearly a more affluent society emerging, which you simply do not see in the provinces. 

Statues of Albanian heroes and partisans, from the various different periods of history, are very visible, but, despite little in the way of public acknowledgment, the ghosts of the Communist era brood here too, in the shape of ugly concrete apartment blocks, austere former party headquarters, and, amidst the modern bars of Blloku, the nauseating opulence of Enver Hoxha’s house, now anonymously hiding behind its walls. There is one stark reminder of those dark days close by, a monument which includes bunkers, some mineshaft props from the Staci prison camp, and a section of the Berlin Wall.  

The complex culture clashes of patriotism, pride in their country, mistrust of power, recent wounds, idolisation of those who fought for Albanian causes, new freedom, and the emergence of the first truly free generation of recent times, combine to make Tirana a fascinating and stimulating city. 
We climb the clock tower, once the highest point in the city but now dwarfed by an array of old blocks and new builds of varying degrees of ugliness. But the view from the top is still amazing, the minaret of the mosque adjacent, the statue of Skanderbeg on his steed proudly watching over his city from the main square.     The dome and clock tower of the new Cathedral are a suprisingly beautiful addition to the city. The sweep of the wide tree lined avenues and the attractive roof gardens are all visible from on high. From a height the clash of old and new is even more evident. Amongst all this it is clear that these people are proud of their city and striving to enjoy their freedom.

Our last evening, we stumble on an interesting district, a few bars, a market selling live chickens, it’s all a bit rustic and exactly to our taste. We find a tiny traditional Berati restaurant the food once again is both traditional and fantastic. The owner welcomed us and is clearly proud of both this little place and his family home back in the castle of Berat and talks with pride of his family. We drink his home made wine and mulberry Raki; the raki and the dessert free again – lost count of the number of free drinks we’ve been given on this trip!

Tirana is congested and noisy, drivers blowing horns and the over zealous whistles of the traffic police clashing all the time with the sounds of construction sites. As we leave for the airport we know that 24 hours wasn’t enough to explore Tirana to the full, but what a fascinating time to pass through this proud city.

And, what a contrast of Albanian destinations we have witnessed over the last fortnight.