More Tirana

Nightlife in Tirana also looks a lot like in western cities. It’s cooler in the evening and people fill the numerous cafés, especially in Tirana’s new hip party district, Blloku. That means “block” and it was reserved for the communist party elite. They didn’t seem to have seen the contradiction in this term.

Joined a walking tour to get some local background. Albania went from a totally isolated stone-age communist open-air prison to democracy in 1991, and it was not easy for the older generation. Suddenly they had unheard-of new things, like bananas, Coca Cola, banks, money instead of vouchers, supermarkets, and cars. (Driving licenses came later.) People started calling all these new things “banana” and proudly placed empty Coca Cola bottles on their mantelpieces. The younger generation caught on very quickly.

Today Albanian identity – according to the guide – is defined by four things: the country, the language, driving a Mercedes, and raki schnapps.

Tirana

Tirana, the capital of Albania, evokes images of old bearded men riding donkeys through a Soviet-era concrete wasteland. In reality Tirana is a modern European capital. Many parks, small streets lined with old trees, international shops, and bakeries, bars, and restaurants that would thrive in Paris or Berlin. Not only in the center but out in the suburbs too. The communist past rarely shines through, but there is no ancient town, most construction dates from the 20th century. A very friendly city!

At the eastern edge of the city, near a funicular to the top of Dajti hill, is Enver Hoxha’s command bunker. It’s absolutely huge, far larger than the one in Gjirokastra. Much of it is a museum describing the time of WWII and communism, but there are complete apartments and communication rooms filled with original equipment too, and art installations including one that simulates a mustard gas attack. I didn’t know they had gas masks for horses. They even had an enormous theater extending over two floors. None of this was ever used.

Downtown is a curious structure built by Enver Hoxha and his daughter as a cultural center. It’s a pyramid with narrow glass strips extending from the ground to the top. It’s completely smashed, even higher up because it’s shallow enough to walk up.

Adriatic coast

Albania has a long coastline, opposite Italy. I felt that I should have a brief look at this part of the country too. I chose Golem Beach near Durrës because it’s close to Tirana, the capital.

It’s pretty similar to any mass tourism place around the Mediterranean: a chain of hotels along the coast and another row behind that, uninspired architecture, and countless umbrellas and recliners on the beach (first picture). At least the beach is sandy here; elsewhere there are often pebbles. I was anticipating that and got an upscale resort away from the masses.

I don’t actually enjoy beaches much, but a few hours in the warm water and in the shadows at the edge of the water was fun. The food is… unrefined. The hotel has its own gun emplacement, a communist legacy.

Përmet

East from Gjirokastra, higher up in the mountains, without 300-year old Ottoman architecture but also not really discovered by tourist hordes, is the small town Përmet. It’s uncharacteristically flat, built along a river, but the true attraction are the mountain villages above.

Getting there means climbing, some steep 550 meters to the two I chose, Lipë and Leus. The latter has an orthodox church with fantastic paintings, for a village consisting of little more than wooden shacks for animals and people. Some people have odd priorities. The weather is extremely hot, but there are wells with cold fresh mountain water.

Gjirokastra

Gjirokastra is another world heritage town further south, less than 30km from the Greek border. It seems that every town in Albania has several hundred meters to climb on steep, cobblestoned alleys from one side to the other, and Gjirokastra is no exception. It so happened that the bus stop is at the bottom and my chosen hotel at the top. In between is a gleaming white Ottoman-era old town, centered on the bazaar neighborhood.

Also at the top is an amazingly well-preserved castle with imposing arched hallways, now housing WWII guns, and a tiny Fiat tank that looks like its mother had an affair with a steam locomotive. It seems that they were no good in battle and only three are still in existence.

Deep underneath the castle is a huge depressing bunker made from connected tunnels where all the important people were supposed to be when any of the communist leader Enver Hoxha’s numerous enemies decided to attack. It was finished in 1980 and never used.

Berat

Shkodra is in the north of Albania and Berat is in the south, but Albania is not a large country so I got to Berat just after noon. Berat is a UNESCO world heritage site for its fully preserved Ottoman-era old town and its castle on top of a hill, all with narrow twisting cobblestone alleys and properly picturesque ruins. They also make excellent ice cream.

Shkodra

Accursed mountains ought to be difficult to leave, wouldn’t be much of a curse otherwise. Theth certainly is; sixteen kilometers on the most brutally potholed gravel path at the edge of the mountains at little more than walking speed makes sure of that. I half expected bats chasing us. It didn’t help that I got the child seats in the back of someone’s 4WD, next to the world’s biggest reserve fuel container. The panoramas made up for the inconvenience, as always.

So I made it back to Shkodra, with enough time for some of the lical attractions. You’ll find the iconic Mesi bridge in every travel guide, but strangely enough, none of the pictures show the much bigger modern concrete bridge right next to it. On the other side of Shkodra, the Rozafa Castle ruins shouldn’t be missed. Great views of the town, the mountains, and the huge Lake Skadar from its walls.

Hiking in the Accursed Mountains

Nobody seems to know how the mountains in northern Albania got this name. They are certainly arid and empty, few people live here. The most popular trail runs from Valbonë to Theth, some 21km to the west.That doesn’t sound like much, but I ended up climbing some 1200 meters on often slippery paths, at a continuous unrelenting 20-25% grade. That’s like walking up the crumbling stairs to the top of a 400-floor skyscraper! With snow in the top 40 floors. Fortunately much of the descent was on easy and soft – but still steep – forest floor. I was seriously tired when I finally arrived in the tiny village of Theth. Fort the innkeeper in Valbonë had packed a picnic for me with bread and a soft, coarse sausage.The vistas made up for the exercise. Beautiful mountain panoramas at every turn!

Mountains!

Komani Lake near Skodra is gorgeous – very long and narrow, and framed by steep mountains on both sides. They run ferries that run up the lake for four fantastic hours, with another wonderful view after every bend.

There’s a van running from the ferry terminal to the town of Valbonë, which isn’t really a town but a series of guesthouses spread out in a long narrow valley. Valbonë manages to upstage even Komani Lake – there’s a panorama of steep mountains all around, some forested and others rocky and snow-capped. Beautiful!

Albania

This is my first post at the new site, and it’s not even in Asia. Consider it a test run. Why Albania? A friend is highly recommending it, and warned that it should be visited before it gets too modern. Albania has only recently woken up from Soviet-style hibernation, shut off from the rest of the world.

Albania’s only international airport is at Tirana, the capital. The transfer shuttle got cut off on the tarmac on the few hundred meters from the plane to the terminal. Twice. Immigration is easy and efficient.

But I didn’t go to Tirana, and got a taxi to Shkodra in the north of the country instead, close to the mountains. It’s all very peaceful and beautifully restored, with little traffic. Downtown has a wonderful Italian small-town charm, with lots of restaurants, bars, and small shops. Everybody I met was very friendly. A good start!