Albania – a real alternative

Although there’s been a lot of media hot air about Montenegro in recent years, Albania is currently more interesting, and it’s become a great destination for slightly more enterprising backpackers. I passed through fairly quickly, with less than a week to spare between staying with friends in Montenegro and with family in Corfu, and would love to come again when the weather permits me to spend time in the mountains (it rained every day in mid-May). So I went from north to south fairly close to the coast, from Shkodër to Tirana, Berat and Gjirokaster, finishing at the port of Sarandë – all interesting towns with plenty of history. The country was, not surprisingly, green and fertile, but I didn’t see many of the mushroom-like pillboxes (tiny bunkers) that one heard so much about a couple of decades back – an indicator of how time passes. Now Albania seems much like the other southern Balkan countries, if a little poorer and thus more ‘authentic’.

 There’s now little sign of the strong folk culture that I found in places like Transylvania in the early 1990s and was probably going strong here at the same time. Albania’s been through some turmoil, not just its peculiarly warped form of communism (from 1945 to 1990) but then the pyramid-savings scams that brought the country to its knees in 1997 and unleashed a particularly anarchic uprising, with over 2,000 killed and UN peacekeepers sent in to restore order. Tribal feuds that it was assumed were finished and done for raised their ugly heads again, and the place seemed like an utterly failed state – I’d recently read about the build-up to this in Robert Carver’s fascinating The Accursed Mountains (1998) (and briefly in Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules; 1995). Another brief rebellion broke out in 1998 after the assassination of opposition leader Azem Hajdari. Nowadays the main towns feel perfectly safe and welcoming, and I certainly never felt I needed to wear a moneybelt or not go out after dark.

 Having said that, there are more tourists than I expected – not on a Kotor-like scale(though cruise ships seem to be arriving), but there’s a steady flow of backpackers staying in hostels (and there are quite a few of those in all the tourist centres) as well as coach parties in hotels. The main roads are decent, and the main towns are only a couple of hours apart; there are also very slow (but spectacularly cheap) trains between Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Vlorë and Elbasan – see below for more on Tirana’s stations.

 Northern Albania – Shkodër
Rozafa castle

I was first in Shkodër, gateway from Montenegro (by the routes from Podgorica and from Ulcinj on the coast) – it’s a very pleasant place without a huge amount to see, although I was taken by the quantity of cyclists, mostly managing to keep an umbrella upright and still stop and steer safely. The Rozafa castle is 3km south (a local bus shuttles along the main road) and gives great views after a stiff little climb, but there’s really nothing to see inside. In the town centre there’s a fairly poor history museum, in an attractive nineteenth-century building. The going rate for museums is 150-200 Lek (GBP 1-1.40) – there’s a new Photography Museum which charges 700 Lek, which I didn’t visit. Nor did I get to the Site of Witness and Memory on Edith Durham (southeast of the centre), in the former Security Police headquarters – now a memorial to the victims of communist terror. Otherwise there are a couple of Roman Catholic churches built in the 1890s and the English-style clock tower, dating from 1868.

 Tirana

From there I took a slow bus (lots of picking up and setting down) to Tirana, which as expected is largely a mess of communist concrete, but with many redeeming features. I was pleased to find a small new herb and wild flower garden on the central Skanderbeg Square – this is now a wide gently domed plaza above a car park, but I was also pleased to see plenty of cyclists crossing it. Unfortunately the main arteries to the bus stations and out of the city are horribly traffic-choked and not fit for cycling. Architecturally, the city is known for a few Italian Fascist-style buildings, such as the national bank, and for its programme of making unattractive concrete blocks more attractive by painting them – I was led to expect lurid graffiti art, but saw only pastel Italian tones – but I didn’t get everywhere. The ‘Tirana 2030’ project aims to return a bit more nature to the cityscape, and will with luck be nothing like the crass Skopje 2014 project.

 Unfortunately Tirana’s railway station was closed in 2013 and replaced with a multi-carriageway road to rearrange the city’s traffic jams, with trains moved Ryanair-style to Vorë, 16km away; from 2015 trains made it as far as Kashar, an industrial area about 7km northwest of the centre along the Durrës highway. A new bus and train interchange is supposedly to be built in Laprakë, a bit closer to the centre, but as successive governments have been happy to let the railway system collapse this seems unlikely to happen. In truth, one government signs up to a project and the next starves it of funds and cancels it – in particular, a contract was awarded to GE to build a railway to Tirana’s airport in 2005 and then cancelled, costing the government €14 million. Governments keep on putting modern railway stations in places that can only really be reached by car – see the new TGV line in Morocco, and I gather this has also happened with the new line to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

 The city does have a few decent museums – the national history museum starts well, with good archeological displays with information in English, but then goes downhill upstairs (as it were). There’s good coverage of the kingdom of Illyria, which came into being by the end of the fifth century BC, and under the legendary Queen Teuta covered the whole Croatian coast as well as Albania; the Illyrians produced several Roman emperors (most notable Justinian) but simply vanished from the historical record in the seventh century AD. The coverage of the medieval and modern periods is less good, but there’s some interesting stuff – I’d thought Skanderbeg was a purely local hero, but he (George Kastrioti) turns out to have been an equal of the great John Hunyadi (Iancu de Hunedoara), who I’ve come across many times in Romania – they formed an alliance against the Turks, winning a great victory at Niš in 1443. The Castrati petrol stations are named after him (that’s his helmet in the logo), not after the Italian singers with very high voices.

 Nearby, the Bunk’Art-2 museum is housed in the bunker beneath the Ministry of Internal Affairs, built in 1981-6 (the present entry and exit outside the ministry are recent additions). This was one of the last ‘great works’ of Hoxha’s bunkerisation project, which began in the early 1970s and produced 175,000 bunkers and pillboxes across the country. In 24 rooms, it covers the history of the country’s Gendarmerie and the Sigurimi (Security Police), founded in 1944 as soon as the communists began their takeover (its founder was himself arrested and shot in 1948). Between 1944 and 1991 over 6,000 people were executed and over 30,000 political prisoners were held in labour camps; in addition the Border Forces (established in 1949) killed about 1,000 Albanian citizens attempting to leave their prison of a country. It’s a well-presented museum, and you can scan the AR logo for an augmented reality experience. In the eastern suburbs, the original Bunk’Art 1 (in Hoxha’s atomic bunker) displays a broader view of everyday life under communism.

 Hoxha’s Pyramid (built as his tomb and museum in 1988 and briefly used as a conference centre after 1991) is a sad wreck, and the nearby Bloku area, where the senior communists lived and where the hottest bars and clubs are supposedly located, seemed pretty dull to me.

 Having recently been visiting the shrines of Sufi saints in Uzbekistan, I was interested to see that the Bektashi order of dervishes has its global headquarters in Tirana. Founded in Anatolia in the thirteenth century by Haji Bektash Veli from Bukhara, it was particularly popular with the janissaries (such as Mimar Sinan), elite Ottoman soldiers taken as boys from Christian villages in the Balkans – and somehow it found its way back to this part of the world. You can also visit the House of the Dervish Khorasani, Khorasan also being in Uzbekistan. Albania was of course officially atheist in the communist period and is now of no particular religion – there are Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox believers, and they don’t particularly care. Anyway, you’re welcome to visit their headquarters, just east of the centre, and there’s a small museum beneath the mosque (I also saw Bektashi tombs in Gjirokaster castle – below).

 What’s more, Albania has welcomed 3,000 Iranian dissidents of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq from Iraq (where the pro-Iranian regime regularly allowed military attacks on their camp) to a new settlement, known as Ashraf 3, halfway between Tirana and the coast. It doesn’t get many visitors as yet, but there’s also a museum here, covering a hundred years of shocking struggle for human rights in Iran.

South of Tirana –  Berat, Gjirokaster, Sarandë and Butrint

Heading south from Tirana, I found Berat and Gjirokaster both slightly reminiscent of Plovdiv, with their steep cobbled alleys and Turkish-style merchants’ houses. The historic centre of Berat is about 2.5km from the bus station (walk or take a bus, clearly cast off from Paris or the Netherlands) – start with the view from the bridge over the Osumit River, linking Gorica, the Christian quarter to the south, and Magdalem, the Muslim quarter that rises up row upon row to the hill-top Kalasa citadel. On the main road in Magdalem you’ll find the remains of the eighteenth-century Pasha’s Palace and alongside it the Royal Mosque (originally the Sultan Mosque, built for Beyazit II at the end of the fifteenth century), the Helvetti Tekke (a Sufi prayer hall, rebuilt in 1782) and a nineteenth-century caravanserai and inn for dervishes. The mosques are currently being restored by TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which I also noticed at work in Kosova.

 Opposite the Helvetti Tekke I stumbled across the Edward Lear Gallery (not in any tourist literature that I’d seen – it’s free, and open 08.00 to 14.00 except Mondays) – Lear, who was a superb painter and engraver as well as a composer of nonsense poetry, stopped here in 1848 and 1859, and described it as a ‘wonderfully picturesque place’. The gallery has some useful background information on him and one of his paintings, of Mount Tomor, a peak of 2417 metres which was the ancient home of the Illyrian gods and is still the object of a pilgrimage on the Feast of the Assumption in August. The gallery has four biggish rooms, exhibiting temporary shows by local artists, most titled either ‘portrait’ or ‘landscape’ – they’re really not too bad. Lear wasn’t the first western European artist to pass through, as a certain William Martin Leake had been here in 1805, and Charles Cockerill in 1813, not to mention the Irish writer Robert Walsh in 1828; more famously, Lord Byron and John Cam Hobhouse passed though in 1808, although their meeting with the local despot Ali Pasha took place in Tepelena (there’s a reference to the ‘glittering minarets of Tepelen’ in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage).

 Above the Pasha’s Palace, alleys lead uphill past the Ethnographic Museum to the citadel. Originally built in the fifth and sixth centuries under the Byzantine emperors Theodosius II and Justinian I (though the present walls were erected mainly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), this is still inhabited by several hundred people and there are some pleasant cafés here as well as four churches built between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, plus the Church of the Holy Trinity, built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, on the slope outside the walls.

 Gjirokaster, as you’d expect from the name (from the same Latin root as Chester, Worcester, Gloucester etc etc), is all about the castle, although you can also visit some fine Ottoman townhouses. Inhabited by the fourth century BC, the first walls were built in the sixth century and what you see now was built mainly by the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks, who captured it in 1417. Ali Pasha (see above) was backed by the British government at the time, which explains the British cannon on display. Once inside the castle, you can go along an avenue of artillery to reach the very dated Arms Museum, which inevitably also covers the struggles of the Partisans against the Nazis. Rather more interesting is the newish (2012) Museum of Gjirokaster, which opened at 10.00, an hour late, but never mind – it covers local history from 20,000 years ago to 2005, when the city, its houses crumbling due to emigration, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as well as brief mentions of local bats and vultures, and the isopolyphonic songs of southern Albania, also protected by UNESCO (on the intangible cultural heritage list) – iso refers to the drone part of these four-part songs. Outside on the ramparts you’ll see an American T33 jet which crash-landed at Rinas in 1957 (photos taken in 1988 show it in rather better condition than today), but there’s also an interesting story about a Dakota that came down near Elbasan in 1943 with 26 nurses and medics on board – after attempts to fly them out under the Germans’ noses failed they were eventually marched 800 miles (clearly not in a straight line) to the coast for evacuation to Italy.

 There are almost no old buildings in Sarandë (although there are a couple of derelict warehouses near the port that could be repurposed), but the sprawl of fairly low-rise apartment blocks is not unpleasant, mainly because of its setting and the pleasant people strolling on the promenade and running the hotels and restaurants. Nor is it traffic-choked because, unlike Kotor, it has several parallel roads. Nevertheless, there seem to be no controls on the spread of new buildings up the hills and along the coast, and it’s a comfort that the fabulous classical ruins of Butrint are a safe distance away (19km south, to be precise).

 Butrint is fantastic – the hourly bus from Sarandë terminates near the entrance, where a small ferry crosses the outlet from Butrint lagoon to a couple of small villages that have grown up on silt banks that have built up since the city was founded, possibly in the aftermath of the Trojan War (Virgil has Aeneas stopping here) and certainly by the twelfth century BC. The Greek settlement became Roman, then Byzantine and then Venetian, and there are remains from all these phases; the sixth-century baptistery and basilica are particularly impressive, but it’s a shame that the almost intact mosaic of the baptistery is almost always kept under sand, due to the frequency of flooding here. One could well make a case for replacing it with a modern replica and moving it to the decent little museum under the Venetian fort. On the other hand, it was fun watching turtles swimming in the Greek theatre. In fact the whole area is a national park, and I saw a large slowworm or something like it not far from the tourist loop.

Durrës and Elbasan are commonly agreed to be dumps; Paul Theroux’s account of arriving in Durrës in 1994, on a ferry full of stolen cars, is a superb account of a totally failed country, although it obviously has improved since.

Practicalities

I stayed in hostels, which can now be found in all the country’s major towns and which offer the best way of getting information as well as a cheery welcome and a good breakfast. The ones I stayed in in Shkodër and Tirana are both in older houses that survived amid concrete blocks right in the city centres. This was even more true of Berat, where the Berat Backpackers  hostel was in a lovely old house in the Gorica quarter looking across the river to Magdalem (both on the World Heritage List) and the Kala or Citadel. The hostel was known as Scotty’s, having been founded in 2009 by an Englishman (a Geordie, to be exact) – bizarrely, he’d sold it the day before I arrived (although a manager had run it for him for the last couple of years), to the owner of another hostel, a very likeable local chap who seems very capable and speaks excellent English. In Gjirokaster the Dutch-run Stone City Hostel was even better, and rightly won a 2019 Hoscar award – it’s another old house, with spacious common area, squeaky-clean washroom, and superb breakfast – how it is that wholegrain bread is available I don’t know, but homemade fig jam is a constant in this area. But do say if you don’t want your fried egg solid. Finally, my hostel in Sarandë was clean and spacious, with one of the most hospitable owners you could ask for, and just a minute or so from the ferry terminal. I enjoyed the hostels on this whole trip from Istanbul to Albania – it’s a region which seems to attract interesting travellers, not just people looking for cheap beer and ticking off a few compulsory sights. Even so, there are far too many who just hole up on their bunks watching films on their phones (and slowing down the internet for everyone else) – call that travel? And a lot of young people who wouldn’t smoke at home seem go mad when travelling here – something I noticed in Vietnam too.

 In Shköder I ate well at Peja (possibly named after the cultural capital of Kosova), which serves authentic ‘slow food’, but surprisingly fast – I had great eggplant stuffed with apple (from Korça), followed by apple with baklava. I also drank a Puka beer, from Pukë (pronounced Puka), about 30km east of Shkodër, which had a bit of colour and taste to it, unlike all the anaemic lagers available elsewhere in the country. The Korça brewery does produce a dark beer as well as a lager, and I finally sampled that on my last night – pretty tangy and refreshing. In Gjirokaster I ate at Odaja, which was great – there’s an English menu which was clear about vegetarian (not vegan) dishes, which accounted for about a quarter of the list. I had their famous (at least at the Stone City Hostel) tomato balls, which were basically fritters (I also enjoyed them in Corfu) and qifqi rice balls (a Gjirokaster speciality, rather like arancini); imam bayildi is a sort of Turkish ratatouille, and oshaf is a fig dessert (I also saw snails for sale in Gjirokaster).

The Albanian language

Albanian is an Indo-European language, derived from Illyrian, which looks like nothing else with its double rrs and lls and its ë, and names like Urani Runbo. You won’t learn much (enough people speak some English), but do try to master Faleminderit (thank you). Po and jo (yes and no) are easily confused, but once I’d heard an Kosovar talking to his wife on the phone (po, po, po… po, po, po, like a dove) it became easier. The one word you’ll probably remember, as it’s on signs everywhere, is Shitet (for sale)….  By main roads you’ll see signs for Lavazh (in the Gheg north) or Lavazho (in the Tosk south) – at first I assumed it meant Armenian bread, but it fact it means car-wash – from the French, of course.