Albania: The Welcome Mat is Out
impressions are important and my first impression of Albania was great.
The flight was long and included a layover in the Rome airport so it
was nearly midnight when my husband and I arrived at Albania’s only airport
named for Mother Teresa but commonly referred to as Rinas. The airport is
new and passing through passport control was smooth, quick, and friendly.
While waiting for our luggage we met up with our driver and without
delay we were dispatched to our hotel – the Theranda.
The hotel is new and very nice.
We were happy to finally visit Albania.
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.
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 toured the main part of the city including a walk by the Albanian
“liberty bell” made from bullets and other warfare items. We learned that
Skanderbeg, whose statue dominates the main square, 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 Kruja, a pretty town an hour
from Tirana that 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 some 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 family as evidenced by
the fact that they had their own steam bath.
was a beautiful new museum basically devoted to Skanderbeg, the national
hero. It was surprising to
learn how important he was and that we had never heard of him.
People around the world are so familiar with American history and
politics and Americans are really quite unfamiliar with the rest of the
world. We saw signs that said
“I Love Obama” and American flags on the buses and elsewhere.
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. It was a nice change from the souvenir shops
that now seem to sell items that could be purchased anywhere in the world,
or often made in China.
Tirana is an easy city to
like. It is safe, inexpensive,
with a lot of trees, and a canal running through the center.
One street, Ismail Qemali, near our hotel is blocked off to traffic
and has several very nice restaurants and shady places for coffee.
Having coffee with friends is the most popular way to spend time.
The food in Albania is excellent mainly because it is all organic due
to the fact that the average farmer can not afford the imported fertilizers
and pesticides. Amazing - tomatoes taste like tomatoes.
They use a lot of lamb in their recipes but the lamb has a very, very
mild taste not at all like lamb we are use to.
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 giving it the
name “The City of a Thousand Windows.” The valley has been inhabited for
over 4000 years. It 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 plus 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. Castle does not
really describe the area as it is actually a medieval city or citadel.
Located at a strategic point it has wonderful views of the area. It was
first fortified in the 4th century BC. 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 has the works of Onufri, Albania’s greatest icon painter. 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.
met up with 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.
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 so 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
inspections. We spent several
days relaxing around the pool and loving every minute of it especially since
we had the place all to ourselves. 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
country is very safe which is amazing because there are hundreds of
thousands of bunkers built in the 70s giving testament that it wasn’t always
that way. Most bunkers designed
for a single person set four feet in the ground with two gun slits above the
ground. They were built due to
a feared invasion from western countries that never materialized.
Interestingly, they are one of the tourist attractions. The people are very
friendly and helpful. Albania
has a great touristic future. <
Hotel, Tirana: www.therandahotel.com <
service: www.ourexplorer.com <
Hotel, Berat: www.castle-park.com <
Mangalemi Hotel, Berat: