As promised, this is the second post revisiting my summer experience. I spent about 5 weeks in Albania, from July 1 until August 3. There are several reasons why Albania was a great place to visit. I first became interested in the country several years ago when my aunt and uncle lived there. One of the appeals of living in a place like Tirana, Albania to me is the fact that so few people I know have ever been there. Though my heart will always belong to Paris, I love adventure and being able to travel to less-discovered places. The Balkans have become more of a tourist destination, and of course the former Yugoslavian countries are more known globally these days because of the war in the 90s. Albania, however, largely remains an unknown, though that is bound to change soon. You may recall that Albania was featured in the 1997 film Wag the Dog, in which a spin doctor creates a fictional war with Albania through the TV news, in order to cover up an American president’s sex scandal. A memorable exchange from that film essentially goes, “Why Albania?” “Why not? … What do you know about them?” “Nothing.” Albania has come a long way since 1997, however, and more and more people know at least something about Albania.
One marker of this change in Albanian’s recent memory is the visit by George W. Bush in Fushe Kruja in 2007. This was the first visit to Albania by an American president, and they welcomed him with open arms, full of optimism–without any irony. Bush’s visit was recently memorialized in a statue of him, as seen here. I found this sort of optimism and enthusiasm for Americans during my own stay in Albania, and it is definitely one reason to think about going there as a tourist. People were very friendly, and more than once offered to buy me a cup of coffee so they could simply practice their English conversational skills with me.
The last reason that Albania is on its way to gaining greater awareness is that it truly is a fabulous tourist destination. Long closed off from the world, Albania often attracts new tourists simply for their curiosity. For example, I met a French man in Tirana who had traveled to Albania simply because he was curious to finally see this country he knew so little about and that had previously been a forbidden destination. I also met a group of Dutch guys about my age who were there for a weekend, and stated their main reason for going there was that it was the only country in Europe they had not yet visited. However, the realization that Albania has a lot to offer other than just its novelty is beginning to sink in. This past year, Albania and its Riviera was featured as a travel destination by the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler blog and Albania was number one on Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Countries for 2011. In addition to its recognition from travel writers, Albania also has a small but emerging tour group market. Juicy Tours is a new English-language tour agency in Albania that I can personally recommend (more on that later), and is surely a sign that tourism will one day be booming. What does Albania have to offer a tourist? It is amazingly cheap, for both food and accommodations, though the accommodations are not always superb. However, you can find plenty of adequate and well-equipped hotel rooms or guest houses, and the upside to this aspect of the country is the fact that it is not yet over-touristy, so there are really no big resorts to speak of. This makes it very appealing to the more adventurous sort like myself. Finally, Albania has really high mountains and gorgeous beaches with crystal clear turquoise water. Add the friendly people to its amazing landscape, and it is no wonder people are finally taking note of this amazing country.
To recap my amazing trip to Albania, I will leave you with a list of highs and lows. The lows really aren’t that bad–they are more of my list of regrets and also of things you should know before you go there (and you MUST go there) so you can manage your expectations.
Visiting Himare and the Southern beaches, including the atmospheric (and slightly frightening) drives through the Llogora Pass. This would not have been possible without the help of Gail from the aforementioned Juicy Tours. I can’t thank her enough for her help! I contacted her and she was able to work with me to find a way to get me down to the southern beaches without having to pay for a private tour. I was living in Tirana on a fellowship and did not want to spend tons of money, but the really cheap way to travel south was a little too adventurous for me to be willing to do solo (see the lows for more about this). Albania is one of those places where if you prefer the predictable, you could still have some adventuresome fun if you booked a tour with Juicy. They have a lot of knowledge about Albania–one of the two owners is Albanian–and you have the best of both worlds with one guide being a native English speaker and the other a native Albanian.
Some great food: byrek (pastries filled with cheese or sometimes tomatoes) that often cost around 25-50 cents! Delicious Greek salads–they seem to be an Albanian specialty. Seafood, especially fish, down by the coast is always fresh and simply but expertly prepared as well.
I got to see the final Harry Potter film in 3-D for the equivalent of $5 U.S. This would have cost at least triple that here in Atlanta!
The beautiful drive through the northern mountains on the road to Kosovo, and the chance to visit my aunt who had just moved to Pristina. This was mostly a matter of good timing, but it really was great to be in a neighboring country to a relative and actually get to visit.
The ubiquitous bunkers–they are like nothing else you have ever seen before. Of course, they are part of the sad and paranoid history of the dictator Enver Hoxha. A friend in Tirana told me when he was growing up, they were literally taught in school that there were always Americans just on the other side of the mountains who were waiting for the chance to attack Albania. Despite their connection to this troubled past, I still really found the bunkers appealing, maybe because they almost look like sprouted mushrooms growing up out of the landscape.
Albanians. I felt very welcome almost everywhere I went in Albania. People were always really helpful, even when they spoke no English. Many people I met who did speak English were happy to spend time talking to me, so I could hear about their lives and they could ask me about America. I really enjoyed being able to talk to so many different people when I was there, as it really led me to get a sense of their lives and their culture. This also includes my unbelievably welcoming colleagues at the human rights NGO where I interned, who went out of their way to do things for me like arrange educational meetings where I could talk with people who they work with in their efforts to combat domestic violence. I got to talk to a chief police inspector of a local municipality, a domestic violence liaison for the police district of Tirana (who was a woman), and several judges at the civil court, where I also got to sit in on a hearing. At all of these meetings, my colleagues also translated, showing how giving they were of their time to ensure I learned as much as I could about the work they did in my short time with them.
Lots of Italian imports are really affordable, I suppose because of the proximity to Italy. I definitely enjoyed some Italian wine in Tirana. Also, the Albanians do Italian food very well.
Last but not least, machiatto. Coffee shops, often just called “bars,” are practically found on every corner in Tirana. Like most of Europe, iced coffee is an unknown in Albania. I generally don’t like to drink hot coffee in the summertime (and July in Albania is hot, though it doesn’t rival Georgia), but their method of drinking a very small machiatto (espresso with a dollop of foamy milk) with a tall glass of ice water is actually quite nice. I became quite hooked on the stuff, probably because coffee is usually at least a thrice daily ritual there. Unfortunately, a machiatto in the U.S. just doesn’t taste the same, but I can’t figure out why.
Travel is difficult in Albania. No, really, it’s difficult. I am used to traveling alone, but even though I knew what Albania was like ahead of time, I don’t think I was really prepared for it. There is no bus station in Tirana, and there are no real timetables. The bus systems are completely mystifying. What I mostly figured out is that there are two types of city-to-city transport, either large touring buses or smaller minibuses that are like large vans. The large buses often have less stops but have to go slower on the often bad roads, while the smaller ones can get around easier but typically stop more frequently. However, this is just a generalization and nothing is predictable with travel there! Figuring out how to get where you want to go is complicated, because depending on where you want to go, you have to find out what street the buses park, because buses for different places are found in all different parts of Tirana. I was lucky in that enough people travel to Pristina that I was easily able to find a travel agency that sold bus tickets in advance for Pristina, and the buses were not hard to find. However, I decided that I was not prepared to use the even less predictable travel methods to visit other parts of Albania. Had I been with a travel companion, I would not have hesitated, but I was really concerned about getting stranded somewhere alone, so I didn’t do as much weekend travel as I had hoped. In short, what I learned from this is that I really want to go back to Albania with a companion and either rent a car or brave the confusing bus network with a partner.
I missed out on seeing Butrint, Gjirokaster, Shkodra and Lake Shkodra, Lake Pogradec, and Saranda (just to name a few!), because of the travel difficulties. These are some places I would really like to visit, and I was disappointed I wasn’t able to visit them.
Tirana is a little boring. No offense to Tirana. I just wasn’t there long enough to develop a true network of friends, and the city itself can be seen in a day or two. After that, there just isn’t much to do there. Fortunately, I was working during the day so that kept me busy, but the evenings could get a little boring. The one highlight of the evening is when everyone magically appears on the street at 6 p.m. and walks around. It happens like clockwork. It’s an old tradition there, but I saw it as confirmation that they didn’t have anything to do either.
Stray animals. I am a huge animal lover, and the stray animals in Tirana really broke my heart. They were some of the most underfed strays I have ever seen, anywhere. The day that was the hardest for me was when I saw a boxer on the street. I grew up with boxers as pets and so this was especially hard. The dog looked terrible, it was horribly skeletal and it appeared to be blind. I fed it some pasta because that was all I had and I didn’t know what else to do. I met a man on the street who told me the dog was his “friend.” I am not sure what that meant, but I told him that the dog needed some more food. He was headed around the back of a building, and he called the dog, who went with him. I never saw the dog again, but I consoled myself by hoping that the man was taking care of it.