Albania, what a surprise

2023-09-09 13:47:01Pikëpamje SHKRUAR NGA BIJO MATHEW PHILIP
Bijo Mathew Philip in the Albanian Alps

Son Mathew Philip*

?In a thriller scene in "Man Man," a woman is asked by FBI agents investigating a bank robbery to decode an audio clip. After listening to it, she confirms that it is an old speech on the radio by Enver Hoxha, the Albanian dictator. The scene seems to fit the Western stereotype of a small dark town, hidden somewhere in the Balkans, unfairly labeled as a mafia country, writes

These clichés spark my curiosity to travel and shape my thoughts. A nation is a complex entity. Its true identity is defined first by its people and only then, perhaps, by its geography.

We visited Albania from Abu Dhabi in May of this year. The E-Visa portal was easy to navigate. Located in Continental Europe, the country is mountainous, with a long and picturesque coastline on the Adriatic Sea. It can be visited extensively for about a week. Rooms, transport are cheap and Albania has a reputation for offering excellent food and wine.

After the Second World War the country has traced its own course. Social reforms, tribal alignments and redistribution of land have led to the development of a strong agriculture-based economy.

Albania is now a young democracy and is gradually losing its distance, opening its borders to tourists from all over. It has traditionally maintained strong relations with Italy throughout the Adriatic.

The borders are now secure despite a large local Albanian presence in nearby Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Albania's infrastructure is more developed in the southern part. There is a greater tourist activity in the cities south of Tirana such as Vlora or Gjirokastra.

Instinctively, I chose to head towards its less developed north. We booked a room in Razem, a small village hidden in the alps.

We landed in Tirana in the afternoon and were at a hotel on the outskirts where the rental agency delivered our car to us. We started early in the morning and took almost the whole day to cover the 100 miles to Razem on the border with Montenegro.

We spent some time in the Rozafa medieval castle, with a full view of the surrounding area. Lake Shkodra and the mountains beyond were visible from the castle. A very swollen Drin River joins the Buna, which flows from Lake Shkodra west to the Adriatic Sea a few kilometers away.

Razma is a small mountain village that used to be a summer holiday for the great leaders of the Hoxha era. Our hotel had seen better days. The bare hills that back to our window still had snow in May.

Staying four or five days in the village, we had a vague plan to explore the high mountains of Theth on foot or by car. Our plans took final shape after meeting Benedict Aaronson, abbreviated Bene, from London, who had made this village his home for the past two years.

A doctor in physics, he was stranded in Razem when the borders were suddenly closed due to Covid-19. He chose to stay, earning a living by doing odd jobs. He now works in a hotel and also provides a safe haven for stray dogs, cats and horses.

Bene volunteered to come with us and over the next three days we explored the mountains on the northern border between Montenegro and Kosovo. We walked and walked and climbed its rugged and rugged hills with forests, hidden crevasses and its brilliant rainbow waterfalls.

The locals, though intrigued by our appearance, were perfectly hospitable. The hillsides had groves of wild fruit trees, including ripe or dried apples and pomegranates.

Albania is one of the largest producers of oregano, sage and rosemary. The valleys were cultivated with cabbage, lettuce, spinach and tomatoes. Sheep and cattle farms and Hoxha's gun bunkers dotted the countryside.

The isolated villages scattered across the northern mountain were connected only by roads in the 21st century. Until then, these braves had their rules steeped in tradition.

The region was best known for the "Blood Feud", a bloody feud that had lasted for generations between rival families. Every now and then we passed a lonely, fortified tower house used by those involved in the feud or a memorial to a local war hero. It reminded us of the not so peaceful past.

Albania, what a surprise

Albanian food looked familiar. It was Mediterranean with grilled, baked or boiled meats, locally produced fruits and vegetables, olive oil, different types of cheese, honey, chickpeas, types of corn or wheat bread, berry preserves and jams.

We usually have a light breakfast at the hotel and for lunch a local pie called Pierek, with spinach or meat filling. A three-course dinner at the hotel cost no more than $15.

While a glass of local wine was great to start the meal, I found the brandy, the locally distilled fruit liqueur, a little too harsh for my tastes. The same goes for local beer and we stuck to popular German and Belgian beer.

Albania, what a surprise

Coastal Albania, south of Tirana, seemed a world apart from the rural mountainous country of the north. Here the highways were two-lane and there were always cafes and restaurants along them.

Vlora, a medium-sized port city, is reminiscent of Batumi on the Black Sea and had its share of modern beach hotels. A detour revealed the superb uninhabited cliff-top beaches of the Albanian Riviera.

Several islands could be seen from the shore. Further south are the Riveira towns of Saranda, Ksamil and Gjirokastra in the hills. "Mercedes" and "Audi" with Western European license plates were passing us, perhaps towards these cities or beyond Greece.

Source: Tribune India