I won’t get too much into politics since I am writing a travel blog and my aim is to give you some insights in other countries, other cultures and different people. I try not to judge about the facts of living there. You should just enjoy reading my stories! Maybe I can inspire you for your own trip to the unknown and fascinating world outside of our daily and well known life. Let me know about it! By the way, your comments are appreciated!
Entering into Albania was easy. Border controls have been smooth and we headed for the first city called Shkodra, the economic hub of Northern Albania. Back in Ulcinj Jeff had told us that in Shkodra the different ethnic people live peaceful together: Christians, Christian-Orthodox and Muslims. And the best to experience is the city centre itself. The two churches and the big Mosque have been built very close together – just the best evidence.
The lady at the tourist information gave us the advice to stroll around some streets of the old town, which are now getting restored. The old Venezian style houses are getting renovated in a beautiful way and bright colors. We left our car at a private parking place with a mechanic. He told us later that he worked many years in Italy and with the money he earned there he could build a house in his hometown and establish a small business. Lucky him! Since many Albanians speak Italian, we could communicate. My knowledge of that language is sufficient.
Further south the young people prefer to talk with foreigners in English. In fact, we had no problems to make ourselves understandable all over the country, either in English or Italian. A few younger people speak also French and German. In many places I saw the strong effort especially of the young people, to learn languages and to work for a better future – after almost 50 years of hard communist dictatorship which the older ones still remember very well. Albania is a country with potential, especially because of its people. The hospitality is great. I only encountered ones – long time ago in Syria – this kind of hospitality, which leaves me indeed stunning and appreciating.
For sure, Shkodra is a place to discover. We had been on the way to the capital Tirana where I had to work. Next time I will come back to the third largest city in Albania and explore also the huge castle which is dominating the place for hundreds of years.
When I remember the capital city of Albania I have to think of Ola, the nice waitress in our hotel at the outskirts of Tirana. She is working there during the day and in the evening she teaches English and French. On one of our first days in Tirana Ola accompanied us in the bus, showed us where we had to enter and where we had to get off. During the ride a guy sold tickets. Ola got 3 tickets. We asked her how much it is but she told me only, no matter! Albanian hospitality!
Tirana is a fascinating city. Indeed, no much to offer in sightseeing but the atmosphere is great. One evening we spent in the hip part called Blloku. That part of the city had been strictly isolated during communist time, no one of the normal population could enter. There was the house of Leader Enver Hoxa, who ruled the country for almost 50 years.
In the neighbourhood had been living all the politicians and parliamentarians and, of course, they enjoyed Western luxury lifestyle in their mansions.
Isolated from the outside world
The rest of the Albanians had been isolated for almost 50 years. Enver Hoxa launched an experiment: The Albanians got to believe that they are living in a perfect country with the happiest people of the whole world. In all the other countries, the people lived bad and hopeless. Only the rulers of Albania could manage that its inhabitants are the happiest people in the world. And the Albanians believed that for many, many years. No one of them could enter the outside world, government people who travelled had to come back and tell their people how terrible the life is in other countries. Of course, some people had doubts. Especially those who had the possibility to watch secretly Italian TV, but nobody wanted to mention their doubts. And persons who did it became political prisoners, f. e. they had been sent to the horrible prison in Gjirokastra (talking about that later). After the stroll around Blloku we went to Café Taiwani in Rinia-Park. It seemed that everybody comes here to enjoy the evening: Parents with kids, elder people, young and older girls as well as young men, who loves to flirt and chat. From the terrace we looked down to that kind of evening spectacle like to a theatre stage. On point at seven o´clock the nearby fountain waters danced in different colors to old romantic Italian music. How nice!
Damned and beloved Bunker
All over the country and for ever there are and will be Bunker. This small round cement buildings was built on command of Hoxa. Once the country had around 700.000 of the bunker. Also now you see them all over, in the middle of the cities, in isolated rural areas and in the plain fields. There was one reason to build that immense number. In case of an invasion of the enemies, which mean the outside world! Beginning of the 1970s Albania got into extremely political isolation. The rulers had the paranoia that every day military troops from outside could invade the country. From 1972 to 1984 the whole country was therefore equipped with bunkers. During war times the people should withdraw there and defend their country. In border areas the bunkers have been busy with soldiers all over the time.
Today the Albanians want to get rid of those memories of the past. Many bunkers got already destroyed, some of them changed into coffee shops, even a chapel, or a newspaper stand.
One of our evenings in Tirana we went for a drink to Opera-Café at Skanderberg-Place in the city center. We talked with an Albanian who lives in London. We told him that we like the city and its atmosphere. “Well”, he answered, “I cannot really judge about it because it is my home town and I don’t see it as tourists do.” He called the waiter and payed our drinks. “Just enjoy the atmosphere”, he said. Nothing else. Albanian hospitality!
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Impressions from Tirana
What for a fascinating city in the mountains! After a couple of hours driving we reached Berat, with 2.400 years of age one of the oldest towns in Albania, since 2005 UNESCO World heritage site. The well kept quarters from old Osmanian times, called Mangalemi and Gorica, are worth a visit. The castle which dominates the city dates from medieval age. About 350 families are still living inside their walls.
Traditional food made by Koco
To one of the families belongs Koco Plaku, the owner of the restaurant Onufri. The treat of the place is all kind of traditional food. Even when Koco cannot talk English he shows us proud the photo when the President of Albania visited his tiny restaurant. Within 15 minutes our table was filled with about 10 plates of different Albanian specialities. It was great food. Koco never stopped to give us shots of Raki (Albanian Schnaps). With a sweet dessert we ended the feast of eating and drinking. Including wine and soft drinks we paid for 2 persons about 15 Euro. We promised Koco to come back when we will be another time in Albania.
No cars till 1990s
Alma, the friendly manager of Hotel Castle Park (My recommendation: www.castle-park.com) in the hills outside Berat told us about their hope that with a new government the situation in the country will be better. In fact, many people told us about the unbelievable corruption which the country has to face. There is only a slight hope for democracy but at present the rich people get richer and the poor people stay poor. During times of dictatorship until the beginning of the 1990s there have been no private cars in the whole country. Albanians did not get permission to have private cars. And with the political change in the beginning of the 1990s everybody wanted to have an own car. But of course, they wanted cars with the highest reputation. They started to invest in vehicles like Mercedes, second hand. And still today the streets are filled with old and new Mercedes and BMW cars and in between some other brands.
Popular evening Xhiro
In the evening we joined the crowd in their Xhiro – the evening walk –along the Boulevard at the river Osum. We bought roasted sunflower seeds and had ekspres (Espresso) in one of the bars. I discovered that my hand bag was broken and looked for a tailor to fix it. In a side alley of the Boulevard I found one and I showed him my bag. He got it and within ten minutes he fixed it again. I wanted to pay him for his work but he just denied any money. Albanian hospitality!
By the way, the food in the restaurant of Castle Park Hotel is excellent.
Another historical place at the Albanian map and another world heritage site since 2005. By the way it is the birthplace of communist ruler Enver Hoxa (died 1985), the famous national writer Ismail Kadare (born 1936) and Musine Kokalari (1917 – 1983), the first female writer in Albanian history who was arrested in 1946 by Hoxa and was not allowed to write anymore. She died isolated and under house arrest in Northern Albania. The monument on the main square shows the two 16 years old female resistance fighters Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokedhima, who got murdered by the German troops in 1944. The Hoxa-house got renovated and holds nowadays the Ethnographic museum.
Because of its silver-grey roofs Gjirokastra has been called by the Greeks “silver castle”. Indeed, the castle of the city on a steep mountain was the biggest place of the country for political prisoners until the end of the 1960s. Today that prison is interesting to visit. Also we visited the Zekati house, the former house of Beqir Zeko, once a high official of the city, built in 1811/12. It is said to be one of the most impressive private houses of the nobles in the whole Balkan region. We strolled around the rooms and got an impression how people of his class lived in former times.
We met Ioanna on the way to the castle. She stopped and gave us a ride in her big old Mercedes up the hill. She told us she has a souvenir shop in the center. As we told her how pretty Gjirokastra is she argued, that the government would do nothing for tourism. “The old houses just break down, nobody cares about the values of the city.” Money for renovation would never arrive. She seemed very unhappy about the situation and blamed again the corruption and the politicians who are involved.
After 33 Kilometer or 2 hours car ride we arrived at the Albanian Riviera. We heard nice remarks about that region of Albania: The best, outstanding, still undiscovered, and so on. We were curious. Our hotel was new, modern, with very clean rooms but the first two floors are still in construction. The hotel is proud of its panoramic elevator but it ends down in nowhere, because the basement where we got off for the beach was not ready and the elevator was the only thing that worked there. Sarande city is a town with restaurants, a walking pass along the port and stony beaches. But our hotel was in the new part of town and the unbearable view out of our window was to the neighbouring unfinished high houses with naked concrete and steel!
Concrete ruins and beautiful coast line
The crisis in Greece arrived also in Albania. There is no money to finish those ghost apartment buildings and hotels. We saw empty and unfinished buildings along the coast. There is no harmony in architecture and only in the old villages along the coast we found still some kind of beauty. Beside the endless and unfinished buildings Albania has another problem to face. A never ending story of garbage covers the most beautiful spots of the country. In lakes, at the seashore, between apartment blocks, on forest sites and at the countryside you can see endless amounts of empty plastic bottles and bags, old furniture or washing machines not more in use, you just cannot close the eyes. There is no ecological awareness at all. That´s really sad. Albania could make so much out of its seaside with still good prices for tourists, friendly people and a really stunning landscape along the sea. Albanian people deserve it to get a better country and to get their share of the income which will come due to tourism. I do hope they recognize their potential and what kind of treasures they have on the way to a brighter future. But it is not my way to judge about it.
One highlight of our stay at Sarande was the drive down to Butrint (www.butrint.com), one of the most famous archaeological sites of the Mediterranean region. Many tourists are coming here, also from nearby Greece and the island of Corfu. Here you can feel and touch antique times, dating back at least 20.000 year. Greek and Romans came and left. Here Caesar had his military headquarter and because of the pleasant climate wealthy Romans came for living. Even Cicero visited once his rich friend Atticus in Butrint. Along an idyllic path we wandered through the site, saw the Roman theatre, the ancient walls and the Venezian castle. Since the location of Butrint is on a pitturesque peninsula, we had wonderful views to a small lake and forestry hills. The site has fortunately some donors, the Butrint Foundation which takes good care of the excavations.
On our way back to Sarande we saw especially in the village of Ksamil many houses with destroyed roofs. I got to know that this is the result of a government measure in May 2010. Caterpillars and bulldozers destroyed all after December 2006 illegally built houses, accompagnied by Police troops. It hit many middle income Albanian families which constructed small hotels or guest houses for the tourist in order to make a living. Their men worked years abroad to earn money and invested their income back home. Today they are not more than memorials of construction mistakes at the idyllic Albanian coast.
After some days we started to drive back. Hours along the curvy coast line, than via Vlore, Fier and Durres we headed north.
Montenegro … again
We arrived at the tourist town of Bar in the evening. We wanted to continue with driving but it got dark and Montenegro has no highway but only mountain roads. We stayed at a hotel which was loud, crowded by pupils on class excursion and a bunch of referees who had their annual meeting. Bar itself I consider as ugly without any atmosphere. We had a lousy dinner in one of the street restaurants. And I had the worst breakfast in my life the next morning in the hotel. Scrambled eggs soaked with oil, fruit juice out of water with some instant fruit powder, coffee was already out and at least the herbal tea was ok. Also that kind of experience belongs to travelling.
Montenegro has a real treasure to offer. Kotor at the bay of Kotor is one of those places and has, of course, the status of another world heritage site, the only one in Montenegro. When we travelled around the country people told us, how proud they are of this status and refer to Kotor as unique. The historic scene attracts every day many cruise liners from all over the world and the tiny streets are filled with tourists. Thick walls surround the old town and during my first visit here in 2003 the town had a mystic and dark atmosphere. I don´t remember any tourists, but nowadays I have been surprised by the attraction the place has to foreigners. We strolled around the small alleys, watched the unbelievable number of tourists but still I remember my feeling I had in 2003: Was it then a fairy tale, something unreal? I do not have an answer. I just have been astonished.
Herceg Novi is the last town before the border into Croatia and is also located on the bay of Kotor. Only the small old town is interesting. The new parts are covered with apartments and hotel buildings in socialist style. As anywhere else in Montenegro the city is dominated by wealthy Russians, who buy all kind of properties. We had lunch in a restaurant recommended by locals and strolled around the old town. Nothing more, just a short break on our long drive back home.
Photo Collage Title: Nicola Mesken (www.nicola-mesken.com)
All other photos: sl4lifestyle