Albania: The Tail Wags the Dog

A mural in Tirana, Albania, commemorates the revolutionary struggle. Photos by David Rich
A mural in Tirana, Albania, commemorates the revolutionary struggle. Photos by David Rich.

By David Rich

It took me thirty years of trying to finally get into Albania, first applying for a visa in 1972.

But Comrade-Chairman-Prime Minister-Foreign Minister-Minister of War-Commander in Chief of the People’s Army Enver Hoxha (Ho-Ja) gave me a miss, stolidly ignoring my written requests for a visa.

So in 1972, I drove around Albania through Macedonia (sorry Greece; I meant the former Yugoslavian province of Macedonia).

A Singular History

Coming up from Greece in 1997 I found Albania plunged into anarchy by a collapsed pyramid scheme that took the life savings of 70% of its population, supervised by teenagers wielding Kalashnikovs, bullets dirt cheap. So I gave it a miss. But perseverance brings

But perseverance brings reward because in 2006 I found a unique Albania with a singular history that wags the dog, and most everything else.

Only in Albania can you find more Mercedes Benz than at a dealership, most stolen from all over Europe in the mid-90s to compensate for the mere 500 cars in a country of several million stuck over 40 years under the thumb of screwball Hoxha.

Yet the Albanian people are the friendliest, most helpful, and kindest people on the planet:

— the former Albanian ambassador to the UN dressed in spiffy white fedora, white vest and black silk shirt, who walked us to the hotel we couldn’t find in Tirana;

— the kindly grandmother who supervised me onto the bus in Tirana, once on insisting I remove my sunglasses, and kissed me goodbye when I got off in Berati;

— the bus driver from Vlore to Sarande who found me an immaculate hotel at half the price of the one I’d picked, and called the owner who came to fetch me and my mass of luggage, no charge.

The skyline of Kruja
The skyline of Kruja

The skyline of Kruja

Maybe the sincere friendliness has something to do with Albania’s weird history as the North Korea of Europe, isolated and alone, first spurning Yugoslavia, then Russia, and finally China as too liberal.

Try imagining Stalin and Mao as too liberal.

Mushroom Bunkers

From 1941 to 1985 Albania was ruled by such a paranoiac idiot — until the country’s unanimous happiness at his death — that his first priority was the casting of 700,000 ugly mushroom bunkers requiring five tons of concrete each, enough for the pavement to stretch from the earth to the moon.

The founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler, said, “I was amused by the bunkers and I think they’re one of the quirky, curious things about Albania which it could easily capitalize on. Albania needs to develop an image which is different from anywhere else.” (Athens English Edition of Kathimerini, Reuters, June 14, 2006)

Don’t worry, Tony, because Albania is viscerally different from anywhere else. The concrete-mushroom-bunker caper was sufficient by itself to grind the country into poverty, diverting all money from roads whose potholes could have been featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, dump trucks disappearing to China.

A mosque in Shkoder
A mosque in Shkoder

Unspoiled Beaches

But except for a few minor stretches around Tirana, the potholes have all been fixed and many Albanians apparently benefited from the privacy afforded by the bunkers for jettisoning their virginity.

The subsurface poverty is reflected in cars on blocks being parted out along the hundred miles (160 kilometers) of the main highway from Shkoder to the capital of Tirana, but there’s more to see than cars on blocks, though well over half are Mercedes.

When tourists finally realize Albania is a unique country, in Europe, with unspoiled beaches remarkably similar to its neighbor Greece, they’ll come, tails wagging like doggies in a window.

The south half of Albania is secluded beaches, high mountains chopped by gurgling streams, and ruins from the ages, such as at Butrint, across from Corfu.

There Titus Pomponius Atticus pled with Cicero to lobby Julius Caesar to forget about locating a Roman colony near his estate because it’d bollix the land values of the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.

Historic Ruins

Of course, one grows weary of superlatives uttered by those homebodies who’ve neither lived in nor visited every other place in the world. Still, Butrint harbors the most extensive historic ruins in the Balkans, Greek, Illyrian, Roman, Medieval and Venetian worlds in a single location, sitting on a tiny green peninsula between a lake and the straits of Corfu.

A photograph by Pietro Marubi
A photograph by Pietro Marubi
Geoge Skanderbeg
Geoge Skanderbeg

Its sprawling fortress is practically surrounded by water, the castle on top housing an excellent museum, high above hollow shells of the ages.

The only tourists I saw in Albania were day-trippers from Corfu to Butrint who came, looked, and exclaimed their conquest of Albania. This means the rest of Albania is pretty quiet.

Tourists are missing from Shkoder, the furthest north Albanian city on the southeast end of humongous Lake Scutari, surrounded by snowy mountains. The glowering citadel of Rozafat dominates the southern horizon where the trade routes from the Danube River and the Aegean Sea converged, dating from late B.C.E.

Photo Exhibit

The best part of Shkoder, besides the photogenic Orthodox Church and Mosque, is the Marubi Photo Exhibit, classical shots taken from the late 19th century. Remarkably talented Mr. Marubi captured the personalities of Turkish Pashas, mountain men and rugged Albanians of all persuasions.

Tirana is crammed with succulent restaurants, broad boulevards, and few tourists. My favorite refuge was the only wireless hotspot in the country at Stefan Qendra, which is a combination restaurant and hostelry.

Geoge Skanderbeg

However, only single and separate beds are available, because it’s run by American missionaries, frequented by pairs of Mormons in white shirts and ties, and families watching the World Cup while their men quaff non-alcoholic beer.

But the Internet is free for the price of dining from an excellent menu with slightly inflated prices, a liter of French press coffee $1.80 offering enough caffeine to fly you through the roof.

A Canny Warrior

The Church of the Holy Trinity in Berati
The Church of the Holy Trinity in Berati

When in Tirana, pop up to Kruja, a mountain village a mere 32 kilometers (20 miles) away that was Albania’s capital from 1443 to 1478, the only period prior to the very late 20th century when Albania was run by Albanians.

Their hero and savior was Skanderbeg, a canny warrior wearing a goat’s head helmet with impressive horns, who repulsed 13 invasions by the Ottoman Turks, earning the title, Captain-General of the Holy See, bestowed by Pope Calixtus III.

Kruja is high above the Tirana dust, cooled by mountain airs, set off by a hunky citadel above a modern castle cum museum (The Skandenbej) designed by evil Hoxar’s daughter and son-in-law.

Many Albanian city squares feature Skandenbej astride his valiant steed, in bronze. When Skandenbej died in 1478, the Ottoman Turks immediately took Albania, ruling for hundreds of years.

Churches Spared

Berati is Albania’s second museum town, so-called because only it was spared along with Hoxar’s birthplace of Gjirokastra, from the razing of all churches, mosques and most historic places in the former proletarian Albania.

When mom saw me safely off in Berati, I heaved a sizeable sigh of relief and repaired to a charming B & B for days of exploration and relaxation.

Perched above sat a mountain-top Byzantine fortress, walls and 26 ancient churches covering 50 city blocks with a view over the broad valley, serpentine river, and snow-capped peaks.

A marble head of Constantine, taller than Yao Ming, guarded the citadel walls, entered through twisty portals for exploration of ancient cisterns, Byzantine churches in brilliant brick, and an old red mosque, also in brick, incongruous relics among the hilltop population of 1200 people.

My biggest difficulty in Albania was a knee-jerking belief that shaking the head from side to side meant no, when in Albania it always means yes. Thus I thought the hotel full, when it invariably offered many rooms, the same for coffee, breakfast, and all daily necessities, like beer, which included Tuborg and Amstel on tap most everywhere. So when wagging side to side in Albania, remember it means YES.

When you go:

It’s easy to enter Albania from the world’s newest country of Montenegro (Ulcinj bus two hours to Shkoder, $12), from Macedonia (referred to exclusively by Greeks as Fypom, which stands for the former Yugoslavian province of Macedonia), or Greece. Car rentals are prohibitive in Albania but local transportation is inexpensive and frequent, though slow because no road is straight or flat.

The fruit and veg are among the best and least expensive on the planet and all organic.

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