Albania is on the Balkan Peninsula, neighbored by Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. It is filled with stunning landscapes of mountains, beaches, and ancient ruins. But I found Albania deeply confusing. Many tourists are currently flocking to the Albanian Rivera for its cheap beaches and beautiful water. The seaside is perfect, with rocky cliffs over looking turquoise water. But unlike the South of France and close by Italy, the communist architecture and new condos are an eyesore. The sidewalks are half built, and the poverty in the area is clearly visible. Albania is a moderate Muslim country, where I saw mosques that did not have the traditional call to prayer, and almost all women with out headscarves. Like many formerly communist countries religion is not a central part of life. Albania is also a poor country where nearly every car is a Mercedes, which is befuddling (rumor has it almost all the cars are stolen.)
I thought I was headed to see a completely untouched country, kept secret by years of communist rule. But reconciling Albania is difficult. Its long history is complex. Part of the Greco-Roman empire, than the Byzantine, followed by the Ottoman, to a brief stint with independence in 1912, followed by an Italian invasion, to communist dictator rule, and than finally the end of communism in 1991. There is much to see from ancient Roman ruins to Italian fascist architecture. Tirana, Albania’s capital is stunning, designed by the Italians during World War II. Walking around for moments you might believe yourself in Rome. Alas though my thoughts on Albania aren’t all rosy. For starters the roads are horrific. Not one tunnel cuts through the mountainous countryside (70% of the country side is mountainous), thus the roads crisscross up the mountain and than back down. Driving is time consuming and nausea inducing. But driving around the roads is like stepping back 100 years; people are on donkeys and goat herders are everywhere. The mountains countryside is picturesque. But than the donkeys are on the road with the Land Rovers and Mercedes and I am yet again confused.
Places like Butrint offer a Roman forum, and Roman ruins that are set among valleys of farmland and pristine lakes. The views combined with the history are beyond words. If you’re an art history or history buff, you will adore Butrint. Gjirokastër an ancient Ottoman city is filled with tiny alleys, and old ottoman houses. The city of one thousand windows, Berat, is also beautiful. Couple this with Albania’s natural wonders like the Blue Eye, a spring whose pristine waters are off set by the minerals in the water which to give the water of the spring an intense almost neon blue color, like the iris of an eye.
The Blue Eye:
The food is heavily centered on olive oil, grilled vegetables, lamb, and feta. Most vegetables are gown in backyards, so the food is fresh and simple. It is spiced with the Mediterranean spices of oregano, mint, basil, and garlic. The food is fine, but it’s not incredible. Locals do not dine out and I assume Grandma is probably cooking the great food in her house. I must confess I suffered terribly from food poisoning or possibly a dreadful virus on my last few days. I could write about this for pages. Being sick in a foreign country is ruff. All I can say is I know my husband loves me because he took care of me while I was vomiting, having distressing GI problems and crying (all at the same time). Thus I missed most of Tirana because of my illness, so I can’t say much on that area.
I would probably never return to Albania and I don’t know why. I still can’t reconcile all the countries beauty with the fact that I didn’t love Albania. I think it’s just a confusing place. It is a strange thing to visit a country and still feel like you don’t understand it at all. When people ask me about Albania I can’t really explain it. It is cheap, and there is much to love, but I didn’t love it.