You’re a kid again, and it’s Easter. You spend hours combing the house and the yard for brightly colored eggs and other surprises, some pastels, some brilliant blues and greens and yellows, all of them wonderful and bright and delicious. You’re laughing. You’re free. You run and jump around, grinning ear to ear. Maybe you’re a little high on chocolate. Once in a while, you unwrap a crinkly treasure and savour as the sweetness melts through you. You’ve been at it for hours now, but you’re certainly not about to stop. Sure, it’s almost bed time, but there’s still so much more to find.
That’s sort of what it’s like to visit Albania: a pleasant, delicious surprise at every turn, and you never want it to end. We found it charming and beautiful, the people extremely welcoming and hospitable, the prices very affordable, and the history fascinating (although in some ways tragic).
History by an Outsider
If you’re from the United States or Canada, like we gingers are, then you probably don’t know much about Albania. There’s a pretty good reason for that, actually: Until about 25 years ago, and for about four decades prior, Albania was a deeply communist country with totally closed borders. Following the Second World War, and right up to the early 90s, very little entered or left the nation, including people, goods, and information. Until very recently, most simply didn’t have TVs, cars, or other such luxuries we take for granted in the West. And before that, Albania had a long history of being conquered and occupied.
We know it’s easy to Google what you want to know, but to spare you the trouble, I’ll give you a little overview of the history, followed by our observations having spent three weeks there. Take all of this with a grain of salt, and assume I’m making big generalizations and probably not a few mistakes. It’s just what I (Scott) have pieced together in chatting with folks around Albania and from our reading about the country.
Dating back to Ancient Greece, the area of modern Albania was home to the Illyrian tribes, as well as some Greeks and Romans. At some point during the 3rd century BC, the entire region was conquered by Rome. In the sixteen or so centuries that followed, it was controlled in whole or in part by the Romans, then the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the Slavs, and then the Bulgarian Empire. Around the 15th century, it was taken over, as were most of the Balkans, by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, under whose power it remained for the next 500 years.
Early 20th Century
Finally, in 1912, Albania declared its independence from the Ottomans. After the First Balkan War (1912-13), followed by WW1, modern-day Albania and its surrounding regions were split up by the League of Nations, who divided what were then parts of Albania up among Yugoslavia, Italy, and Greece. (All of this is a huge oversimplification, I know, and lots of people see this in different ways. Still, it’s worth noting because it is a significant part of some of the atrocious fighting that has happened in and around the Balkans in the past 20 to 30 years.)
Anyway, the newly formed Albania was a monarchy, then it became a republic briefly, and next, even more briefly, it was a monarchy again. Then, on the eve of WW2, Albania was occupied by Italy, and finally, near the end of the war, by Germany.
Late 20th Century
After the Germans withdrew, a strong communist movement arose in Albania. Its leader, Enver Hoxha, was a former grammar school teacher. The earliest years of Hoxha’s 40-year regime brought some objectively good things: He built roads and schools, virtually eliminating adult illiteracy (up from only 7%) in Albania within just a few years; he is said to have advanced women’s rights; he built Albania’s first railway line; and he pushed Albania toward self-sufficiency in terms of agriculture and manufacturing.
However, even during those early years, many families also lost their homes and businesses to the communist machine. And like dictators always seem to do, he got much worse over time, and more ruthlessly ideological; becoming paranoid and jaded, he suspected some of his closest allies of conspiring against him. Most were killed.
His government caused Albania to suffer terribly, and things got much, much worse throughout his reign. People were spied upon (or became collaborators and spied on each other), and many were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Some of the stories we heard and videos we saw, especially in Tirana and Shkodër, were sickening and heartbreaking. It was, for lack of a better term, criminal lunacy. Most Albanians we met consider Hoxha to have been a Very Bad Man.
For example, the government built 750,000 concrete bunkers all over the country, in case anyone tried to attack them (we saw several throughout our trip). Political prisoners and suspected enemies were placed into internment and labor camps, or simply killed. People could not leave or enter the country, except for a few diplomats, and they were closely vetted and spied upon all the time. Food was scarce, and in many places people either starved or traded illegally (and if they were caught, sent to prison camps or killed). People who opposed the government were not only captured and/or killed, but their entire families were blacklisted for three generations. Torture and terror ruled the day.
Hoxha finally died in 1985, and the regime he had built slowly collapsed by around 1990. In 1992, the communist party was ousted, and since then Albania has been a democratic nation.
Back to the Good Stuff
Okay, that last section was kind of depressing, I know. Sorry.
Let me assure you that, despite those dark years, Albania today is a beautiful, warm, peaceful, thriving country. Its people are very genuine, welcoming, helpful, and kind. And food is now very plentiful everywhere, it seems, unlike those dark years when many people starved. In fact, Connie and I wondered more than once if the typical portion sizes, which are very large, and the fact that there are markets and fruit-and-vegetable stands every 50 meters or so (like, even more common than Tim Hortons back home in Canada!) might be a sort of reaction to that time in living memory when food was not plentiful?
Here are a few observations and interesting tidbits about Albania:
It’s Not “Albania,” It’s Shqipërisë
Shqipërisë (SHIP-er-EES-a) is the proper name of the country as said by its own people, and those people call themselves Shqipëria, not “Albanians.” Similarly, their language is Shqip (pronounced sort of like a cross between the English words “ship” and “sheep”), not “Albanian.”
There are two main dialects of Shqip: a northern one, Gheg (also spoken in Kosovo and parts of Macedonia), and a southern one, Tosk, also spoken in parts of western Greece.
There are also two rare dialects: Arbëresh, spoken in parts of Italy — and there is a cool story behind that, so if you’re interested, ask me! — and Arvanitika, spoken in parts of Eastern Greece.
Hospitality among the Albanians, both in our personal experience and as a matter of cultural heritage, is very important. It is a very old tradition here, as it is in neighbouring Greece. Being intrigued by this idea, as I remembered its importance as a theme in old Greek literature such as The Odyssey, I did some digging. Here and here are a couple of interesting links if you’d like to learn more. (And if you think that’s cool, then you might want to read about Gjakmarria too.)
I’d add that, in addition to being very hospitable, Albanians are also very gracious and well-mannered. For example, whenever we got on a bus or furgon (see below), if there was a young man seated, he invariably got up without a word to offer his seat to any woman or elderly person who climbed on board. There was no social cue required — it was automatic, and very refreshing to see.
One common tradition across Albania (and as we’re finding, throughout the Balkans) is raki (RAH-kee), or moonshine. It’s sometimes called rakija (RAH-kee-ah). This very strong alcoholic drink is usually made from grapes or plums, and often flavored with honey, but there are as many varieties as there are people who make it, from other fruit or berries or even nuts and herbs. Usually about 50% alcohol or more, it is very potent stuff, not to be imbibed lightly or quickly. In the old days, during the Ottoman rule, men would sit around the table and, during a meal, could *only* drink either wine or raki. I expect those were some very convivial dinners.
Today, almost everywhere you go, be it a person’s home or a restaurant, there is a very good chance that you will be offered some raki after a meal or just late at night. And as you know, we gingers can’t turn down da booze.
The best way to get around Albania is not by plane or by train, but by bus. And not your typical Greyhound bus (although they do have something similar between major cities), but by minibus. Specifically, privately owned minibuses (or vans, or trucks, or whatever else has a bunch of seats) — or furgons.
Here’s how it works: In each town, there is an area or three, usually parking lots or the like, where these bus drivers congregate. There, they stand like hawkers at a fair, shouting out the name of their destinations. Once you hear your destination, you approach the driver and ask how much. He says something like “300 leke” (which is about $3USD), and then you get on board. You can pay immediately or when you arrive. Once the bus fills up — and only then! — the driver takes off. Along the way, they drop people off whenever the passengers request.
In our experience, the cost was usually $2 to $4 between relatively close places (maybe an hour or two), and up to maybe $8 or so for longer trips. You could pretty much get around the entire country, in bits and pieces, for $20 to $30 this way (and we did, for about $50 in total for the two of us).
Oh, the buses often pick people up along the road on their route, too, so if you’re between two towns, you can usually wait for a furgon to roll by and just wave them down. If they have room, they’ll stop.
Drivers in Albania
Okay, there has to be one bad thing about the country, right?
Drivers in Albania are, generally, not great. Maybe it has to do with the fact that, until the end of communism, there were almost no cars in the country? Most people only learned to drive there in the past 20 years or so. I expect that, as a result, older folks were pretty much self-taught, and they passed on their bad habits to their children? There are exceptions, of course — a few of our hosts drove us around and were fine — but as a rule, I’d say beware the streets of Albania.
Fortunately, with all those furgons around, you may not need to drive. But then again, those furgon drivers are crazy as hell too.
Up Next: Part Two
Connie has now also posted “Albania, Part Two,” so please enjoy! Her post is much more about the specific places we visited and the people we met there, rather than the general stuff I included here. Keep your eyes peeled!
—Scott & Connie