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AlbaniaThe undiscovered jewel of the Adriatic by Ihab Zaki

In order to better appreciate a visit to Albania, one should possess at least a minimal understanding of its unique history, culture and geography as well as a little knowledge about the country’s key leaders. Albania is one of the smallest countries in Europe and the youngest as well, having gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. In the first 30 years of its existence, it was invaded by all of its neighbors. The regime that took over in 1944 used a combination of terror, nationalism and isolation to retain power until long after most other Communist governments had fallen.

 Civil unrest overwhelmed the country in 1991-92 and 1997. After a few years of democracy, the economy was in shambles, resulting in an exodus of educated and middle-class Albanians looking for a better life in Europe and America. However, Albania has the perfect mix of an ideal destination: weather, alluring topography, delicious cuisine, ancient sites, Ottoman towns, beautiful museums, forests and an untouched sea. The current infrastructure consists of very adequate and some very pleasant hotels, an excellent value as far as costs for tourists. Europe has become so overrun with visitors that Albania offers a great alternative with a very attractive variety of things to see and do.

 My uneventful trip through Rome landed me at Mother Teresa International Airport in Tirana. The airport has been named after the ethnic Albanian Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa) who was born in what is now Macedonia. The plane landed at just before sunset and I was already captivated by the view from my seat of rugged mountains on one side and the blue Adriatic on the other side.

 From Tirana we traveled to the picturesque town of Kruja, perched high on the face of a hill. Kruja was the center of resistance against the Ottoman Turks under the leadership of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, who held them at bay for over 30 years in the 15th century. The windows of our charming hotel’s dining room showcased the stunning illuminated castle. My “welcome to Albania” included a soft breeze, an ice cold local beer and an incredible view. The next morning we were joined by our local guide Albana. She is proud of her country and her heritage as evidenced by the many personal insights she shared with the group. We headed out to visit the fortress of Kruja, the small but impressive Skanderbeg Museum, an ethnological museum and a large but nearly empty bazaar featuring antiques, local handicrafts and silver jewelry.

Even though in the last few years Albania’s roads have improved, I must say they still leave a LOT to be desired. We quickly learned that estimating drive time by distance is very misleading as often the conditions of the road dictated slower speeds. Our capable driver Pellum (aka Colombo) navigated the VW minibus with care and made us feel very safe all along the way. In Albania, Mercedes cars are everywhere! When Albana mentioned that this county has more Mercedes cars per capita than any country in the world, we doubted her, but after spending 7 days in the country, we believed her. Cynics contend that a major reason for the ubiquitous prestige car is that most Mercedes stolen in Western Europe end up in Albania — a possible explanation of why one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a per capita annual income of only around $4,000, has so many luxury cars. Most of the roads are paved, but a great many have only two lanes, making for slow traffic. These sturdy cars withstand the punishment of roads that look like they have been through the blitz! Despite the low income of the people, TV satellite dishes are everywhere and gasoline sells for about $5 per gallon.

 The country is very safe for visitors and the best part is Albanians like America very much. This is attributed not only to Woodrow Wilson’s championing of their independence but more recently America’s role in helping to end the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. We actually were greeted by George W. Bush’s statue in one of the villages to commemorate his visit there in 2007.

We left Kruja and traveled to one of the most magnificent Greco-Roman cities of Albania: Apollonia. Though not as impressive as Ephesus in Turkey or Jerash in Jordan or Leptis Magna in Libya, it is beautifully situated and is centered on the temple of Apollo. The city flourished under Roman rule as an important port until the 3rd century AD’s earthquake rerouted the nearby river thus contributing to the demise of the city. Our enthusiastic local guide who was informative as well as humorous told us that only 10% of the site has been excavated. That is the case with all the ruins in Albania which suffer from neglect due to a lack of funding and foreign academic institutions working there to unearth the treasures that are still hidden today. Perhaps it is best this way as ruins that remain unexcavated have a better chance of being preserved and kept safe from looters.

 We visited the nearby 13th-century Byzantine church and monastery. Monks no longer occupy the monastery, but it’s a base for archaeological work. Since our guide had previously worked there as a researcher, we received a great deal of detail about this interesting site and its beautiful small museum.

 Another site that was impressive is Butrint, which is comprised of many layers representing the occupation of the area by various civilizations. It incorporated buildings beginning with walls built by the Greeks, Roman baths, a Byzantine baptistery and a necropolis from the 6th century AD.  Considered to be Albania’s most important archaeological excavation it may be the most significant site in the whole Mediterranean area. The archaeological site is complex, with ruins representing many eras comprising more than 2,500 years in total. The explanatory signs throughout the site are excellent, providing visitors enough information (in English) to understand what they are seeing. At least 2½ to 3 hours should be allowed to fully appreciate this ancient city of many layers.

 One of our most enjoyable drives took us along the Albanian Riviera as we spent several hours heading south toward the coastal city of Vlora. The roads were full of “S” and hairpin turns, but our driver was excellent and the drive extremely scenic. Upon arrival, we lunched on grilled lamb and Greek salad that we “washed down” with some local raki – the anise drink that is related to arak in Lebanon and ouzo in Greece.

 Vlora is recognized as the seat where important events in the struggle for Albanian independence took place. We visited the Independence Museum where we received a briefing on the politics of the time and toured the house where the movement began. This house was kept just as it was in 1912 when the seeds of independence sprouted.

 Next on our itinerary was a visit to the city of Gjirokastra a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the birthplace of the dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania for 41 years; his childhood home has been converted into an ethnographic museum. We toured the castle, perched high above the city, and the Blue Eye, an unusual underwater spring located 15 minutes off the main road going toward Saranda. The spring is over 50 meters deep and the water bubbles up through a deep pool, making an odd circular shape, intense blue at its center and an almost electric blue green on the edges. From here we headed to our rest stop for the night, an inn that had been restored into an old Ottoman-style home on a narrow cobblestone street.

 We found the food in Albania to be absolutely delicious. Influenced by Greek and Turkish cuisine, it features local seafood, meats and produce. Yogurt sauce with cucumbers, rice-stuffed grape leaves and spinach pie in phyllo dough are foods I had enjoyed in the US, but in Albania they were transformed into something amazing! The seafood was incredibly fresh, and the roasted meats and vegetables were expertly prepared and quite savory. I could detect hints of oregano, cumin, fennel and cloves in the huge portions we were served. Albana explained that Albanians take pride in serving so much food that something will always remain on the table.

 Albania has alluring natural wonders. Located just north of Greece, the country boasts the same dramatic coastline of cascading villages perched on mountains that plunge into the sea. The difference is that there was no traffic and we didn’t have to jostle with other tourists for the best viewpoint or patch of sand! Although September was not the best month to assess the beach crowds. Even away from the coast, I found the landscape fascinating. Arid mountains streaked with erosion were ablaze with yellow bushes of broom and pink and purple wildflowers nestled in rocky crannies.

 Another lovely city was Durres, 2nd in population to Tirana and home to Albania’s largest port. The highlight is its 2nd century Roman amphitheater located in the middle of the “old” city. The ruins remain partially buried and homes have been built over sections of it. Exploring the exposed cavea (subterranean cells), created out of a system of stone arches, was fascinating and something we have never been able to do in other amphitheaters. An added bonus was the Byzantine chapel, converted centuries ago from part of the original structure, which still retains the ancient mosaics on its walls. In my opinion, the newly opened museum of Durres is to be commended for its exceptional display of its remarkable collection of amphorae, statues, coins, and tomb stones.

 Albania also has captivating old Orthodox churches and monasteries as well as museums filled with religious icons, frescoes and mosaics. We have visited so many that it is hard to pick a favorite. Perhaps it is the church in Berat with its gilded interior, wonderfully carved wooden iconostasis (the screen between the nave and the sanctuary) and icons by the famous artist Onufri. Or maybe it’s the ancient Ardenica Monastery, near Fier, which contained ornate light fixtures, a gold polychrome iconostasis and a plethora of beautifully preserved iconography.

 We returned to Tirana and settled in a hotel that was located a few hundred meters from Skanderbeg Square in the center of the city. Compared to other cities in the region, Tirana, founded in 1614, is relatively new. The political, cultural and economic hub of the country, it became Albania’s capital in 1920 and is undergoing well-planned redevelopment. It is booming in terms of growth, offers good value and is safe for walking both day and night. So we headed out to explore and photograph the old Cameria Mosque, the Clock Tower, the Palace of Culture, the Anthropological Museum, the National Theater and several impressive government buildings.

The time had come for me to depart while the group drove north to Skodre (Shkodra), the traditional center of the Gheg cultural region, and one of the oldest cities in Europe. A concerted effort to renovate the buildings in the Old Town has made wandering through Shkodra a visual feast for the eyes. The ancient Rozafa Fortress, that was probably originally erected by the Illyrians, was rebuilt several times by the Romans, Venetians and Ottomans. The castle ruins consist of 3 courtyards and a few buildings. The oldest remaining structure on the castle grounds is the St. Stephen's Church, which dates back to 1319. The castle’s location on a 130 meter high hilltop provides for panoramic views of Shkoder, the Buna and Drini rivers as well as the southern end of Lake Shkodra.

 The following day the group took what could be considered the most impressive ferry trip in Europe on Lake Komani as they continued traveling to Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. They journeyed from the hydro-electric dam at Koman to the port of Fierza, on the way to the town of Bajram Curri – a trip that lasted about three hours.

The Europeans are quite familiar with the Dalmatian coast and its reasonable prices. Americans are trickling into Albania now, but they will soon be beating the door down when word gets out that there isn’t a war and the coastal scenery, and the food, rivals that in the Italian Riviera.