My first taste of Albania was riding the Lake Koman ferry, a personal introduction with not only the country but with the warm, generous, lovable Albanians. Little did I know that traveling through Tirana and Berat would drag me further under Albania’s intoxicating spell.
Following an overnight in Valbona at Rilindja guesthouse with hosts Catherine and Alfred – where I had the best hot shower in months and stretched my legs along some picturesque mountain trails – I dipped into Kosovo because, itinerary wise, it made sense and why shouldn’t I spend a few days in Kosovo? But more about my love affair with Kosovo later.
I hopped back over the border toward Tirana, Albania – on a genuine bus with a schedule, a stamped ticket and a bus driver. We sort of left on time and there was neither livestock in the backseat nor sacks of potatoes at my feet.
Two nights in Tirana, Albania – The capital of Albania was an interesting stop. Tirana is a busy, somewhat dirty city yet it was captivating in the sense that it evokes an overpowering vibe of pride and determination. Any visitor could see that Tirana is struggling to find its place in the world while continuing to overcome years of mistreatment and corruption. Under dictator Enver Hoxha, only 700 cars were permitted within Tirana’s limits, and the cityscape was blemished with gray, communist-era buildings. Now, under the outstanding leadership of Edi Rama, more than 300,000 vehicles crowd the streets and the city boasts wide, grassy parks. Mayor Rama, once a painter in Paris, also transformed the drab city into a brilliant kaleidoscope of painted buildings.
As my days in Albania multiplied, I encountered many more stories about the country’s difficult history. While many were compelling narratives of corruption and illegal immigration, more were simply about the day-to-day struggles to thrive in a country where virtually all contact with the outside world was forbidden. And considering that the average monthly wage in Albania is 45,539 lek, or USD 370, much of the population is still living under or near the poverty line. Yet, there profound hope that shines through in the warmth and generosity of the locals.
A bit about Albania – Albania’s a little rough around the edges, especially since it is perceived as Europe’s most corrupt country. I was fascinated – and disgusted – to discover that many Albanians feel that they need to bribe doctors in order get any medical treatment at all. Teachers accept bribes to pass students in classes and kickbacks are almost expected in order to receive diplomas at the university level. And the police force? OH MY!
Though Albania is still establishing its footholds to be a “normal” European country, crossing borders is still almost impossible. Throughout my tapestry of conversations, I learned of one young man’s older brother who lives in Germany. His family paid nearly USD 8000 to smuggle him across European borders, and considering the astronomical interest, the family will be paying the fee for generations. The rate for being smuggled to the United States is almost USD 25000! However, those living abroad are able to take higher paying jobs, establish residency (sometimes) and send money back to their families in the home country.
Mediterranean influences in Berat– Following a few nights in Tirana, I climbed on a furgon bound for Berat, Albania’s southern beauty. The furgons leave almost hourly from outside the hospital, and for a mere USD 3, I was awarded with majestic views of Albania’s sprawling interior.
Arrival in Berat was visually stimulating. This gorgeous village, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008, is nestled in a thrilling landscape of open skies, olive and cherry tree groves and hillsides resplendent with white ottoman houses and rambling cobblestone alleys.
Berat’s tagline is, “a city of a thousand windows.” The ancient city boasts Ottoman houses on both sides of the Osumi River as well as in the walled citadel of Berat Castle. These beautiful wooden houses feature sharp angles, sloping roofs and strong Turkish characteristics. Even the churches in town blend harmoniously into the city’s tranquil vibe.
I stayed at Berat Backpackers for four nights. The hostel is owned by Englishman Scotty, and he had several friendly volunteers that were from all walks of life. We gathered for yoga on the veranda, sipped lemonade in the shade during the warm afternoons and indulged in red wine infused evenings under the olive trees. There were some burgeoning orange trees in the hostel’s yard and we made fresh juice on a daily basis.
There weren’t a ton of “touristy” activities to do in Berat and that suited me just fine. I wandered the stone passageways, watched children play soccer on the cobblestones, followed grandmothers carrying baskets of produce, bought fruit from vendors and just generally indulged in the kindness and curious nature of the locals. Many the bystander stopped me to ask why I came to Albania and, of course, if I liked their country.
Berat Castle – One afternoon, I climbed to the top of the town to the castle overlooking Berat. Inside the fortress lies an entire neighborhood called Kalasa where crumbling churches, medieval nooks and wandering cows and goats blended for a supreme ambiance. Plus, the views from the hilltop were outstanding!
I explored for a bit, eventually finding myself on the edge of the fortress walls. White-washed houses, flowery yards, fruit orchards and cottonball filled my camera’s viewfinder. It was a wonderful spot to breath in fresh air and meditate for a few moments.
Market days in Berat take place on the weekend. One of the town’s bridges closes for a few hours while peddlers spread out blankets and tout their crates full of dates, nuts and more. There was everything from cartons of vegetables and apples to boxes of tools and socks. On the other extreme were the aisles of pathetic looking chickens and other fowl.
I’ve noticed that the older generations of Albanians always make an effort to look neat and tidy. Three piece suites complete with a dapper vest and jaunty beret are the norm, even on market day surrounded by freshly picked – albeit dirty – vegetables. Women wear kerchiefs over their hair, blouses with beautiful lace embroidery and heavy, dark skirts. I don’t think I every saw shorts or revealing clothing among the elders of the community.
Berat turned out to be a refreshing escape from an otherwise quick journey through Albania. I breathed in mountain air and enjoyed smelling the aromas of orange trees and jasmine. From Berat I’ll head into Macedonia to finish off my Balkans adventure.