Saturday, August 21, 2004


This pint-sized, sunny slice of Adriatic coast has been ground down for years by poverty, blood vendettas and too many five year plans, but Albania still manages to pack a wild punch of traditional Mediterranean charm and Soviet-style inefficiency.

It's a giddy blend of religions, styles, cultures and landscapes, from Sunni Muslim to Albanian Orthodox, from idyllic beach and rocky mountain to cultivated field. Relics from one of the longest dictatorships in Eastern Europe rub shoulders with citrus orchards, olive groves and vineyards.

Decrepit, Chinese-built factories stand next to breathtaking mosques; ornately decorated Orthodox churches face off 'Soviet Brutal' palaces of culture.

Kicked around by the Balkan big boys for millennia and turned upside down by its very own Maoist Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Albania is now tentatively embracing democracy, the outside world and a few foreign travellers. Some things won't ever change, though: the spectacular forested mountains, the warm Mediterranean sun, and the heart-rendingly blue waters of the Adriatic all endure the country's ups and downs.

The security situation in Albania is on the improve, although visitors should continue to exercise care, maintaining a high level of personal security awareness. The northeast of the country, which borders Kosovo, is the only region travellers should avoid.

Unexploded ordnance bedevils parts of the area bordering Kosovo. Armed gangs operate in this region, as well as in Shkoder and in the south between Memaliaj and Gjirokastra. Travel should be restricted to daylight hours and large public gatherings and demonstrations should be avoided.

Full country name: Republic of Albania
Area: 28,748 sq km
Population: 3.5 million
Capital City: Tirana
People: Albanians, with Greek, Vlach, Macedonian and Gypsy minorities
Language: Albanian, Italian, English, Greek
Religion: Sunni Muslim (70%), Albanian Orthodox (20%), Roman Catholic (10%)
Government: Emerging democracy
Head of State: President Alfred Moisiu
Head of Government: Prime Minister Fatos Nano

GDP: US$15.69 billion
GDP per capita: US$4,400
Inflation: 6%
Major Industries: Cement, chemicals, food processing, hydropower, mining, oil, textiles and clothing, timber
Major Trading Partners: Italy, Greece, Germany, Belgium, USA, Bulgaria, Turkey, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Member of EU: No

Facts for the TravelerVisas: Visas are required for citizens of most countries. These are issued on arrival for a price equivalent to what an Albanian would pay for a visa for their countries.
Health risks: diarrhoea
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (Central European Time)
Dialling Code: 355
Electricity: 220V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric

When to Go
The best month to visit is September, when it's still warm, the days are long and the fruit and vegetables are in good supply. The sun shines longest from May to September, and July is the warmest month, but even April and October can be pleasant.

Money & Costs
Currency: Albania Lekë

Budget: US$5-10
Mid-range: US$10-20
High: US$20+

Budget: US$10-40
Mid-range: US$40-60
High: US$60+
Prices in Tirana are considerably higher than in the rest of the country, so budget travellers should see the sights then head for the boondocks. If you are on a tight budget, you could get by in the country for US$30-40 a day, but you'll need closer to US$60-70 in Tirana. That will give you fairly basic accommodation and three square, if basic, meals a day. Paying for a few more comforts, staying in a better class of hotel and doing some guided trips would easily raise the budget to $80-90 a day. Even though Albania is cheap for the western traveller, you can spend a lot more that US$100 a day if you work at it and look only for the best hotels and eat in the top restaurants.

Every town has a free currency market that usually operates on the street in front of the post office or the state bank. Look for the fellows with pocket calculators, who will give you about the same rate as a bank without the 1% commission, although some banks will change US dollar travellers cheques into US dollars cash without a commission. Transactions on the street are legal, but you'd be wise to count your notes before you walk away. US dollars are the favourite foreign currency, and you should bring your bills in small denominations as they can be used to bargain. Cash is preferred everywhere, and credit cards are not accepted.

Albania is a tip-conscious society, and you should leave a reasonable (say, 10%) tip in restaurants. Duty free alcohol can be an excellent gift for anyone who has been particularly helpful, but you should use your discretion when considering tipping in other situations. Tourists who hand out small gifts to children on the street are encouraging them to become a serious nuisance. Bargaining is fine in markets and bazaars, and for everything from hotel rooms to taxi rides to curios.

Capital of Albania since 1920, Tirana is compact and pleasant enough to explore on foot. It lies almost exactly midway between Rome and Istanbul, and its architecture has been influenced by both, as well as by the Soviet Union. Most visitors to Tirana begin at Skënderberg Square, a great open space in the heart of the city. Mt Dajti rises to the east, and the market on that side of town is well worth exploring.

The National Museum of History is the largest and finest museum in Albania, and you'll find it next to the 15-storey Tirana International Hotel, the tallest building in the country. A huge mosaic mural entitled Albania covers the façade of the building. To the east, the Palace of Culture has a theatre, restaurant, cafes and art galleries, and the Soviet influence is apparent in its clunky architecture. The entrance to the National Library is on the southern side of the building. Opposite that is the cupola and minaret of the Mosque of Ethem Mey, built in 1793 and one of the city's most distinctive buildings. Tirana's clock tower, built in 1830, stands beside the mosque.

A statue of Enver Hoxha once stood on the high marble plinth between the National Museum of History and the State Bank in Skënderberg Square, but it was toppled after the return to democracy, and a small fairground now takes up the centre of the square. Over the Lana River to the south are the sloping white marble walls of the former Enver Hoxha Museum, which is occasionally used as an exhibition centre and slated to be turned into a disco. The red star has been removed from the pyramid-shaped building's tip. Further south on Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit are the ultramodern Palace of Congress and the Archaeological Museum, which has a fantastic selection of objects from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages.

The best budget accommodation in Tirana is through private rented apartments or with local families. The formerly cheap state-owned hotels have either closed or been renovated, and now ask substantially higher prices. New hotels are similarly out of the budget traveller's reach. There are plenty of places to eat cheaply on Skënderberg Square and on Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit, and small and stylish bars have sprung up all over town.

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The ancient ruins of Butrint lie 18km south of Saranda and are a real gem if you're into ancient world ruins. Virgil claimed that the Trojans settled Butrint, but no evidence of this has yet been found, and the site has been pored over by archaeologists.

Treasure hunters from Italy lifted many of the antiquities before the war, but most have since been returned and are on display at the National Museum of History in Tirana. Greeks settled Butrint during the 6th century BC, although the area had been settled long before by the Illyrians.

Within a century of the Greeks arriving, Butrint had become a fortified trading city with its own acropolis, the ruins of which you can still visit. Just below the acropolis in the forest is the 3rd century BC theatre, also used for performances when the Romans were there. Nearby are public baths with geometrical mosaics, and deeper into the forest is a wall with Greek inscriptions and a 6th-century baptistry decorated with colourful mosaics of animals and birds.

Overlooking the whole site is a triangular fortress, erected by warlord Ali Pasha Tepelena early in the 19th century. Butrint is accessibly by road from Saranda, which is linked to Tirana and Vlora by bus. The ruins are nearly on the country's southern border with Greece, 160km (99mi) south of Tirana.

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Unlike Tirana, Durrës (Durazzo in Italian) is an ancient city, founded in 627 BC by the Greeks. It was for centuries the largest port on the Adriatic, and the start of the Via Egnatia to Constantinople. Landings here by Italian troops in 1939 met brief but fierce resistance, and those killed defending it are now regarded as the first martyrs of the War of National Liberation. Roman ruins and Byzantine fortifications embellish this major industrial city and commercial port, Albania's second largest city.

A good place to start is the Archaeological Museum, which faces the waterfront promenade near the port. Behind the museum are the 6th-century city walls, built after the Visigoth invasion of 481 and supplemented by round Venetian Towers in the 14th century. The Roman Amphitheatre, built between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, is impressive, and stands on a hillside just inside the walls. The former Palace of King Ahmet Zog stands to the west of the amphitheatre, and in front of that is a statue of Skënderberg and, incongruously, huge radar disks set up by the Italian army. When you're in the centre of town, don't miss the Roman Baths behind the Aleksandër Moisiu Theatre on the central square.

Durrës is 38km (23.5mi) west of Tirana, and is easily accessible by rail. If you're coming from Italy there are direct ferries from Trieste, Ancona and Bari, and there are also services from Koper in Slovenia.

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Gjirokastra is a strikingly picturesque museum town, perched on the side of a mountain above the Drino River. The town was well established by the 13th century, but the arrival of the Turks in 1417 initiated a slow decline. By the 17th century, however, the town was thriving again, with a flourishing bazaar where embroidery, silk and the still famous white cheese were traded. Above the Bazaar Mosque in the centre of town is the Mëmëdheu ABC Monument, commemorating the Renaissance of Albanian education around the turn of the 20th century. Dominating the town is the 14th-century citadel, now a museum of armaments. Enver Hoxha's childhood home houses the Ethnographic Museum, and the old Turkish Baths are in the lower town. Gjirokastra is 120km (74mi) south of Tirana, and as it's on the main highway between Tirana and Saranda it is easily reached by bus.

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Shkodra (also Shkodër and, in Italian, Scutari) is one of the oldest cities in Europe and the traditional centre of the Gheg cultural region. In 500 BC an Illyrian fortress was already guarding the crossing west of the city where the Buna and Drin rivers meet. The road to Kosovo also begins here. Shkodra's skyline is dominated by the new and impressive Sheik Zamil Abdullah Al-Zamil Mosque, and next to that is the Muzeo Popullor, which exhibits recent paintings and historic photos upstairs and has an impressive archaeological collection downstairs. Shkodra was also the most influential Catholic city in Albania, and the impressive Franciscan Church on Rruga Ndre Mjeda is now a church again after serving as an auditorium during Albania's official period of atheism.

Rozafa Fortress lies 2km (1.2mi) south-west of Shkodra, near the southern end of Lake Shkodra. Legend has it that a woman named Rozafa was walled in here, and she asked that two holes be left in the wall so she could still feed her baby. Nursing mothers come here today to smear their breasts with the milky water. Below the fortress is the many-domed Leaden Mosque, the only mosque in town to escape destruction during the 1966 Cultural Revolution. Shkodra is accessible by frequent buses and trains from Tirana, 80km (50mi) to the south, and infrequent buses from Durrës.

Off the Beaten TrackBerat
Berat is Albania's second most important museum town, and is sometimes called 'the city of a thousand windows' for the many windows in its red-roofed houses. Along the ridge above the gorge is a 14th century citadel sheltering small Orthodox churches such as the Orthodox Cathedral of Our Lady, the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Church of the Evangelists. On the slope below the citadel is the historic quarter of Mangalem, while a beautiful seven-arched stone bridge leads to Gorica, the Christian quarter. The town has several fine mosques, such as the Leaden Mosque, the King's Mosque, the Bachelor's Mosque and the Alveti Tekke, a smaller shrine where Islamic sects like the Dervishes once practised. Berat is 122km (76mi) south-east of Tirana, and the bus journey takes three hours.

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Elbasan lies midway between Pogradec and Durrës, and the town has been prominent since 1974, when the Chinese built a steel mill ('Steel of the Party') there. It also has a cement factory and a growing pollution problem, but Elbasan is not completely without charm. It was founded by the Romans in the 1st century AD, and strong stone walls with 26 towers were added in the 4th century AD to protect it against invading barbarians. In 1466 Sultan Mohammed II rebuilt the walls and renamed the town El Basan ('The Fortress') in Turkish. The 17th century Turkish Baths are in the centre of town, on the opposite side of the park from the Ethnographical Museum. Go through the Bazaar Gate near the clock tower and follow a road north past the 15th century King's Mosque to St Mary's Orthodox Church, which has beautiful stone arcades on its walls. Elbasan is 54km (33mi) south-east of Tirana, and buses, minibus taxis and trains make the journey daily.

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Korça is the main city of the south-eastern interior, and it sits on an 869m (2850ft) high plateau. It is Albania's largest carpet and rug producing centre, and has been since the Greeks were there. Fine museums include the Muzeu i Artet Mesjetar Shqiptar (Museum of Albanian Medieval Art), the Muzeu Historik and the Muzeu i Arsimit Kombëtar (the Education Museum). Much of the old city was destroyed by earthquakes in 1931 and 1960, which toppled minarets and flattened churches, but some of the colour of old Korça remains in the bazar, west of the Hotel Iliria. Korça is 179km (111mi) south-east of Tirana, and you can get there by bus. It is also the first stop in Albania if you enter from Florina in Greece.

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Kukës has possibly the most beautiful setting of any town in Albania. It is set high above Lake Fierza, just below the bald 2486m (8154ft) summit of Mt Gjalica. The old town formerly stood at the junction of two rivers, the White Drin from Kosovo and the Black Drin from Lake Ohrid, but in 1962 it was relocated to its present position when the Party decided to build a hydroelectric dam ('The Light of the Party') and flood its location. It's a pleasant place to spend a few days, and the Hotel Turizmi is one of the finest hotels, with one of the best restaurants, in the country. Kukës is 100km (60mi) north-east of Tirana, and minibuses and buses ply the route daily

The Illyrians, ancestors of today's Albanians, occupied the western Balkans in the 2nd millennium BC, and a convoy of interested warring states followed. The Greeks arrived in the 7th century BC, set up self governing colonies and in the main traded peacefully with the Illyrians, who set up their own tribal states by the 4th century BC. The Greeks took over the south, and still have a claim on it today. The expanding Roman Empire came to blows with an expanding Illyrian Empire based around Shkodra in present day northern Albania, and the Illyrians came off the worse after the Romans sent 200 warships there in 228 BC. The Romans spread their rule to the whole of the Balkans by 167 BC, and in the main Illyria enjoyed peace and prosperity - as long as you weren't one of the slaves working on the agricultural estates.

When the Romans couldn't hold on any longer, the Visigoths, Huns, Ostrogoths and Slavs salivating outside city limits struck poses and compared armies during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In the 11th century, the Byzantines, Bulgarians and Normans squabbled over the northern region of Illyria, which, before Roman times, had stretched north to the Danube. Serbia, the Turks under the Ottoman Empire and even the Venetians all came and stayed, but in 1479 the Ottomans invaded and ruled until 1912, letting the region languish as the most backward part of Europe. In 1878, the Albanian League at Prizen (in present day Kosovo, Yugoslavia) began a struggle for autonomy that continues today. The Turkish army squashed the first glimmers of independence in 1881, but further uprisings followed.

Uprisings between 1910 and 1912 culminated in the declaration of independence and the formation of a provincial government led by Ismail Qemali. The London Ambassadors' Conference of 1913, however, put paid to aspirations of independence by handing Kosova, (you're less likely to cause offence if you call it Kosova) - nearly half of Albania - over to the Serbs.

WWI temporarily wiped away further moves for independence as Albania was occupied by Greece, Serbia, France, Italy and Austria-Hungary in succession. From 1920 to 1939 the country governed itself, but Ahmet Zogu, representing the landed aristocracy, went to bed with Mussolini's Italy. That move sprang back to hit him in the face when the Italians invaded at the outbreak of WWII. The communists, under Enver Hoxha, led the resistance against Italy and, after 1943, Germany. By October 1944 they'd thrown the Germans out, the only East European nation to do so without the assistance of Soviet troops. The communists consolidated power after the war, and proclaimed the People's Republic of Albania in 1946.

Two years later the country broke off relations with Yugoslavia and allied itself with Stalin's USSR. Britain and the USA backed a few Balkan-style Bay of Pigs operations - landings by right-wing Albanian émigrés - that nevertheless failed to topple the communists. When Khruschchev demanded submarine bases in 1960, Albania broke off diplomatic relations. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Albania left the Warsaw Pact altogether. It embarked on a self-reliant defence policy that has left the country littered with around 750,000 igloo-shaped concrete bunkers and pillboxes, some of which have since been painted in bright colours. After the break with the USSR in 1960, Albania turned toward China for its inspiration, even embarking on its own cultural revolution in 1966-67. Albania's special relationship with China ended in 1978.

Hoxha died in 1985, and the new leader, Ramiz Alia, embarked on a liberalisation program and strengthened Albania's ties abroad. By early 1990 the collapse of communism in most of Eastern Europe had created a sense of expectation in Albania, and after student demonstrations in December the government agreed to allow opposition parties to exist. The communists won the 1991 elections, but by mid-May a general strike forced the ruling Socialist Party into a coalition with the opposition Democrats. Central economic planning was now on the skids, factories ceased production and the food distribution network broke down. By late 1991 the country faced chaos, and food riots broke out in December. The EU, fearful of a refugee crisis, stepped up economic aid, and the Italian army set up a large military base south of Durrës to supervise food shipments.

The 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule, and the Democratic Party wasted no time in launching a witch hunt against former communists and party officials. By 1993, Amnesty International was prompted to condemn increasing human-rights violations in the country. Albania signed a military agreement with Turkey in 1992 and joined the Islamic Conference Association in a move to counter Greek territorial claims to southern Albania (which the Greeks call Northern Epiros). The mid- to late 90s saw quick changes in prime ministers and presidents as the new democracy stumbled and nearly collapsed, and many Albanians left the country in search of work. As much as 20% of the labour force currently works abroad, mainly in Greece and Italy. When NATO bombed Yugoslavia in spring 1999, nearly half a million ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo spilled over the border into neighbouring Albania.

Polyphony is a southern Albanian tradition dating back to ancient Illyrian times, involving blending several independent vocal or instrumental parts. The songs usually have epic lyrical or historical themes, and may be slow and sombre with beautiful harmonies or include yodelling when it really starts whooping up. There is little Albanian cinema, but the most notable recent film is Lamerica, a stark portrayal of post-communist Albanian life. Before written Albanian was standardised in 1909, there was very little literature. Fan Noli, who died in 1965, was the giant of 20th century Albanian literature. Many of his own works were based on religious themes, but the introductions he wrote to his translations of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Omar Khayyám established him as the country's foremost literary critic. Albania's best known contemporary writer is Ismail Kadare, who fled the country's police state in 1990. His work has been translated into 40 languages.

Albanian (Shqipja) is an Indo-European language with many Latin, Slavonic and modern Greek words. It has two main forms, Tosk and Gheg, which diverged about 1000 years ago. In 1972 the Congress of Orthography established a unified written language, which is now universally accepted for both languages. Italian is useful for travel in Albania; many Albanians learned it before 1943, but others have picked it up by watching Italian TV stations or through recent trips to Italy.

Traditionally, Albania has been 70% Sunni Muslim, 10% Roman Catholic (mostly in the north) and 20% Albanian Orthodox, making it the only European country to have a Muslim majority. From 1967 to 1990 it was also the only officially atheist state in the world, and many churches were converted into cinemas and theatres. The spiritual vacuum left after the fall of communism has in part been filled by US evangelists, but new churches and mosques are springing up all over the country.

Albanian food has been strongly influenced by Turkish food. Grilled meats like shishqebap (shish kebab), romsteak (minced meat patties) and qofte (meat balls) are common dishes. Popular local dishes are çonlek (meat and onion stew), fërges (a rich beef stew), rosto me salcë kosi (roast beef with sour cream) and tave kosi (mutton with yoghurt). Lunch is the main meal, although eating out in the evening in Tirana is increasingly common. Ice cream (akullore) is very popular, and the coffee is either kafe turke and strong enough to walk over to your table by itself, or kafe ekspres (espresso). The white wine is usually better than the vinegary red, and other local drops are raki (brandy), konjak (cognac), uzo (an aniseed flavoured liqueur like Greek ouzo) and various fruit liqueurs. If you're taken to a bar, always offer to pay. Your Albanian host will rarely let you, but your gesture gains your host 'face' in front of others.

A few thousand square km smaller than Belgium, Albania basks on the south-eastern shore of the Adriatic, just a hop, skip and a jump across the waves from Italy. It shares its southern border with Greece, Macedonia lies to the east, and Yugoslavia and the troubled province of Kosovo lie beyond its northern border. The interior of the country is mostly mountainous and over 36% is forested. Despite its position in Eastern Europe, you know you're in the Mediterranean as the plains are extensively planted with olives, citrus and vineyards. A few large lakes, one of them the deepest in the Balkans (Lake Ohrid, at 294m or 931ft) stretch along the borders with Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Greece. The Ionian coast, particularly the 'Riviera of Flowers' from Vlora to Saranda, has some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.

Albania has six National Forests, 24 nature reserves and 2000 natural monuments, but the protection for all of these areas is mainly on paper. All parks are under threat from human activities such as hunting and wood cutting, and Albania simply doesn't have the money to pay for adequate park management. In 1994 hunting was prohibited, which led to some improvements in protected areas such as the Karavasta Lagoon in the Divjake National Park, the most western nesting site in Europe of the endangered Dalmatian Pelican. Environmental pollution is a major cause for concern; nearly all raw sewage is pumped into the rivers untreated, and instances of leaking effluent and deliberate discharges of chemicals from industry have grown to nightmarish proportions.

Albania has hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Summers along the coast are moderated by sea breezes. Around 40% of the rain falls during the winter months, and in winter the central mountains are very cold as continental air masses move in. Even in the cities winter can be uncomfortably bracing, as most rooms are unheated and tap water can be icy.

Getting There & Away
Italy is not a good flight gateway as Alitalia charges business class fares for one-way tickets. Malév Hungarian Airlines offers a cheap service from Budapest to Tirana. You can fly from many European capitals, and Athens is among those offering the best value. The simplest bus route is from Ioannina, Greece to Kakavija on the Albanian border, and there are regular services between Tirana and Sofia in Bulgaria. Land crossings were possible from Yugoslavia before the current round of hostilities in Kosovo, but you can still cross by land from Macedonia. The ferry takes from nine to 25 hours, depending on where you leave from Italy, and there is another ferry between Koper, Slovenia and Durës. Departure tax from Albania is US$10.

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Getting Around
Most Albanians travel the country in private minibuses or state-owned buses, and they are frequent, cheap and comfortable. The roads are generally poor and badly maintained, and if you want to travel by car be warned that petrol stations are available in the cities but are few and far between in the countryside. A limited railway network operates, with daily passenger trains leaving Tirana for Shkodra, Fier, Ballsh, Vlora and Pogradec. Cycling is not unheard of, but it is preferable to do it in groups of two or more for security.