When you ask almost anyone where they are going on vacation, they are unlikely to say Albania. When we told people that we were going to Albania, the first question we’d get was, ‘Why?” That question was closely followed by, “Isn’t Albania communist?” “Is it safe?” “What’s there?” “Where is Albania anyway?”
So, why did we decide to visit Albania? Well, why not? The Lonely Planet described Tirana, the capital, as “loud, crazy, colorful, and dusty” with “traffic likened to unmitigated chaos.” Sounds charming, no?
A Little Background
As you probably know, Albania was part of the Soviet Union; a communist country for 40 years. At the end of 1991, communism fell and they were left to form their own government and sort things out. In 1997 (it’s shocking how recently) they descended into civil war. On the heels of that was the Kosovo war, and more recently, tensions with neighbor, Macedonia. Just how stable and what sort of shape is this country in?
We boarded a ferry in Bari, Italy, to cross the Adriatic to Durrës, Albania, which lies just west of the capital city of Tirana. [Side note: the area of Albania is 11,100 mi². Our home state of Arizona is 113,998 mi².] It was an overnight passage, so we had plenty of time to cast about suspicions of what we might find, and form a mental image of the former communist country. Hmmm… “dusty” with “chaotic traffic.” Sounded a lot like India or parts of Central America. Were we going to have hot showers? Potable water? Please, no, not squatty toilets.
We awoke in our pitch-black, interior cabin just in time to gather our stuff and disembark. The Albanian ferry terminal was small but clean and modern. We sat on the benches in front of it and waited for our ride. After watching the surroundings in this new country for a few minutes, Pat said, “Hey! No tuk tuks.” He was right. And, there were no 2-stroke, smoke-belching motorbikes. Few motorbikes at all really, and only two people max on them, not entire families. Albania is clearly better off than India.
Passengers from the ferry got into taxis and private vehicles while we waited for our host, Ergis, to pick us up. Every single vehicle, taxis included, was a Mercedes, BMW or an Audi. In fact, our host pulled up in a brand new Mercedes-Benz. Ok, clearly Albania is doing much better than Central America too, probably better than certain cities in the USA as well. Time to listen and observe and throw out the wildly inaccurate preconceptions.
Ergis treated us to a coffee and showed us around the neighborhood and the center of the city. The parks and the cafes were very well patronized. People were out enjoying the nice weather and coffee. Albanians drink tiny cups of very strong coffee all day long; morning, noon and night. How they sleep at night is beyond me.
Getting into a Routine
We were in Tirana for a full week and quickly adopted a routine that took us to the same places and meeting some of the same people each day. We’d go to Gazmar’s in the morning for the tiny, powerful cups of coffee with milk called “Macchiato.” He’d teach us a word or two in Albanian. We’d mutilate it until we got it right, or he deemed it hopeless. We became fluent… in five or six phrases; good morning, thank you, please, good day, good night, and, of course, cheers! Good guy. It was hard to say goodbye… in the sense that we’d miss our daily interaction with him, not in the sense that the word is a tongue-twister, though nearly all words seem to have a dozen syllables. And, really, who puts F and T together at the beginning of a word? Look up ‘cold’ if you don’t believe me.
The next couple of hours after our coffee were spent walking around the parks or other parts of the center of the city for photos and people watching. There are a lot of remnants of Soviet days all around and on display in the parks including a piece of the Berlin wall, a bunker, the dictator’s home, and more. We’d pick a good spot to people watch and sit for a bit. There weren’t many tourists, in fact, a man came up to us one day and asked us where we were from and welcomed us to Albania. That was very cool. In addition to old men greeting strangers on park benches, there were a lot of people trying to look as stylish as possible for their walk through the park. It seemed like a contest of who could out-dress whom. Some of the outfits were… creative. This was not what popped to mind when we tried to imagine what Albania might be like.
The Afternoon Routine
Later in the afternoon, we’d go to our beer spot where we’d sit at a table on the sidewalk and sip a beer while watching the cars roll by. I don’t know if we were near embassy row or what, but I’ve never seen so many $50K+ cars pass by in such a short amount of time. We stopped going there after about three visits, not because we were tired of the car show, but because Pat thought I made the barkeep grumpy because I entered his bar while being female. Phhhhht.
Our final stop each day was Era for dinner. We did our best to try every dish listed under the Albanian specialties section. Most nights we’d have the same waiter and a chuckle if ‘our’ table was occupied. We let him pick our dishes after a few visits. Albanian food is good comfort food. One of our favorite dishes was a veal stew in a crock, wrapped in bread dough and baked. Oh. My. Of course, the veggie dishes deserve special mention too; the stuffed eggplant and stuffed peppers were so flavorful and fresh. The produce alone in Albania is worth the trip.
The Albanians, at least in the capital city of Tirana, seem to have embraced capitalism and consumerism in one big bear hug. The work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit of the people we came to know were admirable. At the same time, the amount of money spent on fancy cars and trendy clothes was mind-boggling. Maybe it’s an over-correction to the days of having little choice. The combination of working hard and playing hard has struck a chord here though. Albanians are some of the most friendly, helpful, and generous people we have ever met. Next time someone asks us “Why Albania?” We will have a much more insightful answer than, “Why not?”
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