Aug 26, 2010

Albania is Open for Tourism

Years ago we wanted to visit Albania but until the 1990s Albania was a closed country making it nearly impossible for people to visit. Today it welcomes tourists. The airport is new and passing through passport control was smooth, quick, and friendly.

We had arranged with for a guide in Tirana, the capital city. We met our guide, Martin, on the steps of the Opera in Skanderbeg Square and toured the main part of the city. Skanderbeg, whose statue dominates the main square, was responsible for keeping the Ottoman Empire from expanding into Europe. In the afternoon we went by minivan to Kruja, a pretty town an hour from Tirana. The Ethnographic Museum located in an old house depicts how people lived 100 years ago, and some still do. The working area on the bottom level is 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. Nearby was a beautiful new museum devoted to Skanderbeg. 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 that I often feel like an ignoramus in other countries. We saw signs that said “I Love Obama” and American flags on the buses and elsewhere. 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 local handicrafts such as felt hats, carpets, and antiques. It was a nice change from souvenir shops that sell items that could be purchased anywhere in the world or items made in China.

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 giving it the name “The City of a Thousand Windows.” The valley has been inhabited for over 4000 years. It was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. 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. Flatura guided us through the cobbled streets past houses that are still occupied. Castle does not really describe the area as it is actually a medieval city with wonderful views of the area. It was first fortified in the 4th century BC.

From Berat we took a bus to the Oaz Hotel on the Adriatic Coast. It was mid-September and the season was coming to a close so we were 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 did not invite close inspections. 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 resolve but now they are busy building roads and improving infrastructure.

The 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. Today Albania is a friendly, inexpensive, and interesting destination.