Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Albania’

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.

Highs:

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.

Dhermi Beach

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.

This is a tomato byrek I ate on my last day in Tirana. Most of the byrek I got in Tirana were square or triangular in shape, but this one was a spiral.

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.

Bunkers at Palais beach, just south of the Llogora Pass

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.

Lows:

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.

Read Full Post »

Here are a few photos from my every day life in Tirana. My stay was brief, but I did develop some habits and a routine. Other things I found out too late, like when I discovered a different way to walk to my office that didn’t take me through the outdoor produce market during my last week in town. Of course, I can hardly be found at fault for this, since Tirana’s streets–and lack of street signs–are notoriously confusing. This first photo is a byrektore in the neighborhood, one of the many where I could stop on my way in to work. For the uninitiated, byrek are savory pastries that make really convenient street food. They differ at each place, but the general idea is that it is some kind of flaky or puff pastry with a stuffing, usually in a triangle or square single-serving size. My favorite stuffing was the cheese (think something like a feta), but the tomato ones are also really good.

My favorite Albanian breakfast

An observant person will notice some Italian-era villas in between many of the drab apartment buildings.

This one is just down the street from my office.

And this one is on the secret route to my apartment that I found right before I came home.

The strange, hurried, and haphazard development of the capital city is exemplified by the state of the electrical wires. All you have to do is look up and you can see it all around in many areas.

Tirana is known for its colorfully-painted apartment buildings. A former mayor was also a painter, and he brightened up the post-Communist city by applying paint in interesting patterns to many of the formerly grey buildings.

A colorful building near the river

On my daily walk past the outdoor market, I always passed this guy sitting on this corner. He usually had a crate with just a few very large, very overgrown-looking squashes, and he would start his sales pitch as you walked by. It always ended in a mutter, and I’m pretty sure that even if I understood Albanian his speech would have been a little unintelligible. You can see examples of the squash right above (behind in the 3-D world) the seat of the motorbike in the photo.

Unfortunately, he decided to hold an umbrella for some shade on the day I brought my camera!

One word that aptly describes Tirana is “construction.” This is a city that is constantly updating itself. The main square of the city, surrounded by stately Italian-style buildings, is lovely but a bit unsightly from all the construction–overturned earth and temporary chain link fences invade any view. Still, once you get used to it, it almost seems normal this way. I gave up trying to take a “pretty” photo and just took a photo of what I saw. It was home, after all!

The statue in the square is Skanderbeg--if you ever see him, you can recognize him by his long beard and helmet with a goat's head on top!

This area where the square is located is known as the “Center,” or Qender in Albanian. The Q is pronounced with a “ch” sound, like in “choice.”

The mosque and clock tower in the center are some of the few older structures that remain in Tirana.

See you later, Tirana! My brief time “living” here was definitely a once in a lifetime experience!

Bicycles are a popular form of transportation in Tirana (seen here in the outdoor market).

Read Full Post »

My friend took me to Durrës for the day, where he and his family have an apartment. One of his daughters went with us to see the old Roman amphitheatre and walk around the nearby town square that sits right on the water. The water and beach in Durrës aren’t very beautiful, but it is the second-largest city in Albania, and is practically a suburb of Tirana (based on its proximity), so it is crowded in summer nevertheless. However, it was definitely the history aspect that I found appealing about Durrës. Known as Dyrrachion or Epidamnus in Greek and Dyrrachium in Roman, it is one of the oldest cities in Europe and at various points was part of ancient Illyria, the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.

The view of the amphitheatre from the entrance gate

The amphitheatre was unknown and rediscovered long after lots of construction had gone up over and around it, so the atmosphere is unique–ancient ruins surrounded by communist-era apartment buildings, buildings that are in such bad shape they are almost falling down, a mosque minaret, and streets. My friend told me there is probably much more really amazing structures left unexcavated under the surrounding structures.

These old walls unearthed to the side of the amphitheatre hint at what else might be hidden beneath the surrounding buildings.

A Communist-era relief sculpture we noticed on the side of an abandoned, Italian-style building near the amphitheatre.

In addition to the amphitheatre, ancient city walls can be found in this area of Durrës. They are remarkably thick and I think that is a reflection of the importance of this city in the ancient world.

This doorway in the city wall leads from the main street of this part of the city into the area where the amphitheatre is located.

Supposedly, this cavern-like tunnel is where the gladiators waited for their turn in the arena. I was also told that this tunnel used to lead into another part of the city, but was blocked off.

Read Full Post »

The southern beaches in Albania are hyperbolically amazing. I really don’t know how to describe them adequately, and my photos just can’t do justice to them. Of course I have seen crystal blue sea water and mountains together in one spot before, but everything is just a bit more here. The mountains are higher and more majestic, the sea is brighter turquoise while remaining completely clear. I’ve been to beaches Croatia and Turkey this summer, and all I can say is Albania’s southern beaches were more spectacular.

At the top of the Llogora Pass

Dhermi Beach

Palais Beach

The drive through the Llogora Pass is pretty hair-raising and not for the faint of heart. I had the great pleasure (or misfortune, I’m not sure which) of riding up and down the mountain 4 times. The views from the heights are pretty marvelous, and you can see all the way out to Corfu, a Greek Isle near Saranda at the very southern edge of Albania. The first village after you reach the bottom of the mountain is Palaisa beach, where Julius Caesar landed with quite a few legions during his war with Pompey in 49 or 48 B.C.E., depending on which source you find. Next is Dhermi, which has very nice beaches, and then a windy drive of about 30 minutes through more mountains will take you to Himara. There are lots of spots on the side of the road where a beekeeper sits under an umbrella selling honey (which was so tempting, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to take it home), and the drive often also takes you past many beehives right by the side of the road. You also will notice many Orthodox churches and roadside shrines in this area, and unlike in Tirana, you will usually find that the older generation’s second language is Greek (instead of Italian). In fact, for many people in this part of Albania who are Greek, this is their first language, with Albanian actually being their second language. This was more or less irrelevant, since I speak neither Greek nor Italian!

The view from my hotel balcony in Himara--it was right over the water.

One more view of the epic Llogora Mountains. I wish my photos had all the depth of real life so they would accurately show just how massive these mountains are...

Read Full Post »

Albanian Bunkers

Many of my excursions in Albania offered photo-taking opportunities of the famous concrete bunkers. These bunkers, most barely large enough for one person (and also partially caved-in or filled with trash, such that a person would not want to actually go inside one), are quite literally found all over the country. Sprouting up like concrete mushrooms, they invade almost any pastoral view. Though this makes them sound rather invasive, I was actually quite fond of them. They are certainly a unique and crumbling reminder that the paranoid dictatorship is not that far in the past. I think they are an interesting unofficial symbol of the country, especially because they are all over the country. In many places, they aren’t just invaders from the past, but have been incorporated into the landscaping by the landowners, who often paint them bright colors!

Beach bunkers, Palais/Palasë Beach, Southern Albania. Had they only been here in 49 B.C.E., they could have played a part in the Roman civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey!

The bunkers were quite prolific on the southern beaches.

A painted bunker on Mount Dajti.

I captured this view from above, riding in the cable car down the Mount Dajti slopes. It makes you wonder how they got them into some of these remote and difficult-to-reach places.

Bunkers near the beach at Dhermi, with the Llogora mountains in the background.

Read Full Post »

Kruja

Kruja is a town in the mountains about 45 minutes from Tirana. It is the home of the Skanderbeg Museum and the location where Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania, held back the Ottoman forces from his citadel during the 1400s. Born Gjergj Kastriotis, he was sent to fight in the Ottoman army as most boys from the region were forced to do, but he later came back to Albania to fight against the Ottomans. During his time in Turkey, he earned the name Iskander, which is the Turkish form of Alexander and a reference to Alexander the Great. Beg or Bey means general, and Skanderbeg is the combination of Iskander and Beg. I learned all this and more from an English-speaking historian who worked at the museum, who was kind enough to discuss some of the history with me even though I was there alone and they normally only offer guides for groups of 8. The museum itself does have enough signs in (poorly-written) English that it’s worth a visit even if you can’t get a guide—assuming you are interested in history. As a bonus, the terrace of the museum gives you a great view of the valley below.

A statute of Skanderbeg in the entrance hall of the museum

The museum is the newer-looking building in the middle; you can see parts of the old fortress on either side.

Down the hill from the museum is the Ethnographic Museum, which features a 200-year-old Ottoman style house, with over 90% of its contents the originals, according to the English-speaking caretaker. This is a neat experience because you get to see how people in Albania lived during this time.

The rooftops of Kruja in the foreground, Tirana in the background

The Ethnographic Museum

Read Full Post »

Mount Dajti is the mountain close to Tirana. Tirana itself is very flat, but the mountain is not far at all. Just on the edge of town, you can take the Dajti Ekspres, a gondola lift/cable car ride up to an area near the top. Up at the top, there is a hotel with a café, some restaurants, and hiking trails. The ride itself is quite long and is a great way to see the scenery, while once you reach the top, you have a nice view of Tirana. When I visited, the view was very hazy because it was quite hot and had not rained recently. This means my pictures of the view aren’t so great, so it’s hard to properly convey the experience here. It’s a great trip that can be done in an afternoon, and I highly recommend it as part of a visit to Tirana, since the city itself does not offer many experiential activities.

Heading up the mountain in the cable car you have great views, but the photo opportunity is not so great since most of the windows are scratched up with graffiti.

View of Tirana from the overlook point at Mount Dajti

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »