Albania: Discovering the Balkan country
Until recently, Albania was a lesser known country for me. Of course, I knew the basics, I could easily pinpoint the country’s location on the map, knew the capital, size, inhabitants, a little about the history, etc.. For work reasons, I researched the country’s energy sector and learnt more about the country, the culture, history and the people in general. And became even more curious. So I visited the country in summer 2016.
Akú predstavu u vás vyvolá Albánsko? U mňa to donedávna bola čierna diera, ktorú som však vedela celkom presne umiestniť na mapu Balkánu. O krajine som vedela iba toľko, že … pokračujte po slovensky.
A few facts about the country
Albania is located in the Balkan peninsula. The surface size of Albania is less than the surface size of Belgium and more than three million people live here. Almost a quarter of them live in Tirana, the capital city. They use Albania lek as a currency and speak the language that is unlike any other in Europe.
Albania’s coastline including lagunas stretches almost 450 km along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. The mountains create a natural border in the north with Montenegro and Kosovo, in the East with Macedonia and in the south with Greece. The highest mountain, the Korab, is 2764 metres above the sea level.
The territory of Albania was referred to as Illyria already during the times of Ancient Greece and Rome. From 9th century, the territory became part of the Bulgarian Empire, then part of the Kingdom of Serbia and in the 15th century part of the Ottoman Empire. There are a lot of archeological findings, architectural monuments, and the historical influence is also visible in the food culture or religion.
The most notable figure of these times is Gjergje Kastrioti, known as Skanderbeg. He led a successful rebellion against the Ottoman Empire and is considered a national hero. You will see references to him throughout the country.
Since its independence in 1912, Albania became a principalty, a republic, a kingdom, a socialist republic and a dictatorship in a short subsequence. After the collapse of the Socialist systems, Albania became a republic again, but was mired by weak government, slow reforms, corruption and anarchy. The situation calmed down in 2002.
Economy and Energy
Nowadays, the economy is growing steadily thanks to agriculture, food processing, chemicals, energy sector and tourism. Indeed, tourism contributes with 5% to the GDP directly, but its indirect contribution is much larger.
Regarding the energy market, Albania has its own oil and gas reserves and produces oil and gas for its own consumption. Though the country is extremely rich in water resources thanks to its vast lakes and mountain rivers. Electricity is mainly produced from hydropower and roofs of houses in more rural areas are covered with solar panels and solar water heating collectors.
Yet, the country still gives rural and developing impression. On the way from the airport I noticed a lot of unfinished houses (I have heard that due to high colaudation payments, the Albanians leaves part of their new house purpotedly unfinished), no pavements or pedestrian walking areas, absence of road signs, lots of newly built roads and highways, lots of greenery, but also lots of waste thrown anywhere. For me it seemed like a blend of Turkey (mosques, lifestyle, family life, older but high-end car models), Nepal (high mountains, strong rivers and colorful houses), Italy (pizza and pasta on offer in almost every restaurant, newly built summer resort areas in Golem, archeological findings) and comunism (the characteristic communist blocs of flats, policemen every 100 meters and the bunker tops visible here and there).
When you decide to visit Albania as tourists, you can choose from a great variety of activities – from sunbathing on the beach, via cultural and historical sightseeing to adventure trips to the mountains such as skialpinism, mountaineering, rafting or paragliding. You can criss-cross the country in a rental car, if you dare to drive – there are almost no road signs and a lot of traffic police checks. Official currency is albanian leke, but some shops accept also euros. Do first some research about what could be an optimal exchange rate and if they demandtoo much in euros, just pay in leke. Bring cash with you, payments with ban cards are not very popular and somewhere even impossible.
What to do and see in Albania?
As I mentioned above, the territory of Albania is quite interesting from a historical perspective. There is a lot of historical, cultural, food or religious sights left by Ancient Greeks and Romans (Durres, Vlora, Apolonia), Ottomans (Kruja, Berat) or even communists (Tirana).
Albania has 13 national parks with rising eco-tourism trend. I have visited National Park Divjaka with a sea lagoon Karavasta, known for pelican nests. Ohrid, a 300 meters deep tectonic lake near the city of Pogradec on the eastern border with Macedonia, is also interesting. While you are there, visit also Macedonian side of the lake with Monastery of St. Naum or the lake and historical city of Ohrid.
Due to lack of time we skipped the following areas, but they might be well worth a visit: In the north there is lake Komani, National Park Thethi and the city of Shkodra; in the south there is Gjirokastra (An ottoman city similar to Berat), ancient ruins in Butrint, Saranda (nearby is Greek island of Corfu); or elsewhere Korca, Elbasani, Syr i Kalter.
As for the beaches, there are shallow sandy beaches of the Adriatic sea in the northern part of Albania – best resorts are between Durres and Karavasta – and pebbled beaches in the south with deep but clear waters of Iionian sea.
Don’t let this ruin your holidays
Seaside resorts were built quickly and some areas are still under construction. For example, also a seaside promenade in the area Golem feels unfinished. What stroked me the most was an absence of waste bins. All kinds of waste was thrown at certain spots on the streets for the dustmen to dispose. Sometimes a wind blew the trash through the streets and I was under the impression that no one expect tourists even noticed it. Even the beautiful beach in Divjake national park was covered in litter. If it continues this way, I am afraid soon there will be no pelicans left. And needless to speak about state of the seas. Just be mindful of the local fish on your plate.
Berat is located about 120 km south of the capital city of Tirana and is known primarily as a city of thousands windows. This refers to the small white Ottoman cottages on the hill, which are frequent subjects of photographs, postcards and souvenirs. Berat and Gjirokastra were in 2008 included in the UNESCO World Heritage List and you will find historical monuments from the last 2400 years.
The most visited places are Kala, Marigalem and Gorica. Kala is a town district on the hill of Kalaja, which was inhabited already in the 4th century BC. I would recommend you walking around historic houses, Greek churches up to the view of the Osumi River and the “thousand windows” of Ottoman cottages. You can also note an inscription on mountainside – NEVER – a verbal pun to Enver (Hodza). Continue to St. Mary Cathedral which was built in 1797 at the foundations of an older church from the 10th century. Inside, there is Onufri Museum with iconostasis from the 16th century.
Marigalem is mostly a Muslim neighborhood. There is sultan’s 16th-century mosque and a house with a beautiful carved ceiling. When allowed to enter the mosque, respect the traditions – cover the head with a scarf and cover the shoulders and knees. Near the mosque there is also a square with a Greek church, a promenade and a university. And if you spot a public transport bus with inscriptions in French, do not worry, your are not in Paris. That’s recycling. 😉 (See more of my photos here.)
Kruja is known as Skanderbeg’s city. Gjergi Kastrioti Skanderbeg was an Albanian national hero of the 15th century. He was born into a noble family and joined the Ottoman army. Gradually, however, he Started to disagree with the ottoman system and revolt. He deserted the Ottoman army and began to fight against the occupation of the country.
Berat is located on a hill just off the Mother Theresa International Airport, about 608 meters above sea level, providing great views of the countryside. High on the hill there is a castle from the 5-6th century, below there is a market square that was a place of the 15th century battles between Skanderbeg and Ottoman Turks. The market is an attractive pastime for tourists, if you want souvenirs, buy them here. And negotiate the price. (See more of my photos here.)
Tirana became an unofficial capital city in 1920, officially only in 1925. You can see a lot of typical communist architecture, as well as colorful houses and a lot of mosques – the old town was founded by the Turks in 1614. Tirana’s main square is Skanderbeg square with a statue the hero on a horseback. Until 1991, a 10-meter-long bronze sculpture of the dictator Enver Hodzha stood there. There was a strong personality cult around Enver Hodzha and, for some time, he and Stalin were close friends. While that held true, the Soviets built a Culture palace from white stone, which is now a a dominant at the southern side of the square.
To the left is the National Historical Museum with a nice mosaic above the entrance. Across the park, there is also a brick building of the National Bank of Albania and a few ministries. In the corner of the square there is one of the oldest preserved buildings in the city – Ethem Bey mosque built between 1789 and 1823. The clock tower is from 1822.
Continue around the ministries onto the boulevard to reach a park with several bunkers, a shopping center with restaurants and a golden something on the grass. Crossing the river, you will arrive to the Pyramid. This cement and steel building was originally a Enver Hodzha mausoleum, later a conference center. Today I would not even enter the structure and the Albanians would like to destroy it. But in front, there is a Bell of Peace, built from the shells picked up by children in the wild 90-ies.
Further down the boulevard there is a building of parliament, other ministry buildings including the Enver Hodzha offices and a small park with more bunkers and gallows. In a small alley to the right, there is a house where Enver Hodzha used to live. (See more of my photos here.)
Vlora is a port in the south of the country, founded as Aulona by the Greeks in the 6th century BC. The city is associated with the independence of Albania (from the Ottoman Empire) proclaimed here by the First National Assembly on November 25, 1912. In Vlora, you can see a small Muradiye Mosque built in 1452 by the architect Sinon the Great, Roman excavations and a view of the hill (beware, the stairs are somewhat ruined). There is also a Museum of Independence, a Memorial and a family house of First Prime Minister of the Independent Albanian Government, Ismail Qemal. (See more of my photos here.)
Apolonia is an archaeological site, located not far from Vlora. There is a small monastery with a Greek church on a hill. Next to it, there are Roman excavations with an obelisk, an agora, an arc de triomphe, an odeon, a temple of Diana and excavated foundations of ancient buildings. Up on the hill, there is a small café with a nice view. (See more of my photos here.)
Durres is the oldest city in Albania, founded in 627 BC. It has long been the capital of Albanian territory and thanks to a natural harbor, it kept close ties the old Rome, but also to current Italy. The most notable excavation is the amphitheater from the 2nd century AD, but you can also see the remains of an ancient market and Roman baths. From the more recent history, there is a Venetian fortress, fortification walls, a mosque and purely Communist coastal promenade with partisan sculptures and a dys-functional lunapark. (See more of my photos here.)
Divjaka National Park and Karavasta lagoon
Albania has 13 national parks and Divjaka is one of them. The national park with pine forests and large lagoon (one of the largest in the Adriatic) has been protected since 1994. Karavasta lagoon is home to about 5% of the world’s population of Dalmatian pelicans, which you can observe from a nearby sandy beach. When walking, however, be careful not to step onto some trash. (See more of my photos here.)
Great place to discover before other tourists flock to the country. Relatively cheap, with seaside, adventure, history, culture and good food. If you need a five star hotel treatment, look elsewhere.
Place: Albania – Tirana, Kruja, Berat, Apolonia, Vlora, Durres, Divjake, Karavasta
Date: July 2016
Links: Lonely Planet, Wikipedia, Skanderbeg (Wiki), UNESCO, Energy information