Until the 1990s Albania was a closed country. It was nearly impossible for people to visit or for Albanians to leave. Today it welcomes tourists.
Arriving at Albania’s only airport, named for Mother Teresa but commonly referred to as Rinas, we found that getting through passport control was smooth, quick, and friendly. While waiting for our luggage we met with our driver and without delay we were taken to our hotel – the Theranda, a new and very nice hotel.
We had arranged with OurExplorer.com to have a guide in Tirana, the capital city. At 9:30 the first morning we met our guide, Martin, on the steps of the Opera in Skanderbeg Square. We began our tour of the main part of the city and learned that Skanderbeg, whose statue dominates the main square, was a national hero who was responsible for keeping the Ottoman Empire from expanding into Europe.
After a break for lunch, Martin picked us up in a minivan and we went to the pretty town of Kruja, an hour from Tirana. It clings to a mountainside as do many of the other towns in this mountainous country. Our first stop was the Ethnographic Museum located in an old house depicting how people lived 100 years ago, and as some folks still do. It seemed like a rather comfortable life. The working area was on the bottom level where the animals were kept, olives were pressed, and other work was done. The next level had separate social areas for the men and women. The house belonged to one of the more wealthy families as evidenced by the fact that they had their own steam bath.
Nearby is a beautiful new museum devoted to Skanderbeg. Signs that said “I Love Obama” and American flags were on display on the buses and elsewhere, likely due to the fact that many Albanians have relatives in the United States. Surprisingly, on a display of various cities in the world that have erected statues to Skanderbeg, was a picture of the newest one – in Rochester Hills, Michigan, unveiled in 2006. Before heading back to Tirana we wandered through the bazaar which offered a lot of local handicrafts such as felt hats, carpets, and antiques.
Tirana is an easy city to like. It is safe and inexpensive, with a lot of trees and grass, and a canal running through the center. One street, Ismail Qemali, near our hotel is closed to traffic and has several very nice restaurants and shady places for coffee. Having coffee with friends is one of the most popular ways to spend time. The food in Albania is excellent mainly because it is all organic due to the fact that the average farmer cannot afford the imported fertilizers and pesticides. Amazingly – tomatoes taste like tomatoes! They use a lot of lamb in their recipes but the lamb has a very mild taste, not at all like lamb we in America are used to.
From Tirana we took a three-hour bus ride to Berat, one of the oldest cities in Albania with layers of white houses ascending the hillsides, inspiring the name “The City of a Thousand Windows.” The valley has been inhabited for over 4000 years, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Sometimes it is hard to decide where to stay.
We opted for Castle Park thinking it was near the castle when in reality is it across the river and about a mile away high on the hillside. However, Castle Park has a wonderful forest-like setting and great views of the mountains, and they supply free shuttle service to the center. It turned out that Martin, our guide in Tirana, was also in Berat so he hooked us up with Flatura (which means butterfly), to give us a tour of the castle. The word “castle” does not accurately describe the area as it is actually a medieval city or citadel, first fortified in the 4th century B.C.
With its strategic location, it has wonderful, panoramic views of the area. Flatura guided us through the cobbled streets, past houses that are still occupied, to the National Omufi Museum, one of the 42 churches that at one time were within the walls. Only eight remain and only the Museum is open on a regular basis as it houses the works of Onufri, Albania’s greatest icon painter, whose work many visitors come to see. When Berat fell to the Ottomans in 1417 they built two mosques which are some of the oldest in Albania. However only the minaret of the Red Mosque remains.
Afterward, we met Martin for lunch at Mangalemi Hotel located in the historic area below the castle. The hotel has recently added beautiful rooms in a restored house adjacent to the main hotel – all done in the local style. Lunch on the rooftop was delicious with a wide offering of local cuisine including stuffed peppers “the way grandma made them,” lamb with yogurt, and spinach casseroles.
From Berat we took a two-hour bus to Plepa, a turnabout near Durres, where we caught a cab to the Oaz Hotel. The Oaz is a lovely, small hotel and, since it was mid September, the season was coming to a close and we were just about the only people at the hotel. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, and the pool was lovely which was great because the beach, while picturesque, did not invite close inspection. Litter is a problem in Albania. Considering how far they have come in a decade I am sure litter is an issue that they will deal with – for now they are busy building roads and improving infrastructure.
The country is very safe, despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of bunkers, built in the 1970s in response to a feared invasion from western countries that never materialized. Although unused, they are a reminder of Albania’s past, and stand in stark contract to friendly and helpful people and its future as a tourist destination.
If you go
Theranda Hotel, Tirana: www.therandahotel.com
Guide service: www.ourexplorer.com
Castle Hotel, Berat: www.castle-park.com
Mangalemi Hotel, Berat: www.mangalemihotel.com
Oaz Hotel: www.hotel-oaz.com