Thursday, September 24, 2009

Albania - Open for Tourism

Tirana - Skanderbeg Square
Liberty Bell made from melted down bullets
The entrance to our hotel

Kruja - Scanderbeg Museum
Museum in a traditional house
Women's room in traditional home

girl in traditional dress of the area
Kruja - hill side - it is a mountainous country
Berat - church in castle
Berat - castle museum
Berat - our hotel - Castle Park
Tomi - eating good in Berat
Oaz Beach Hotel near Durres
Sunset over the Adriatic
First impressions are important and my first impression of Albania was great. The flight was long and included a layover in the Rome airport so it was nearly midnight when my husband and I arrived at Albania’s only airport named for Mother Teresa but commonly referred to as Rinas. The airport is new and passing through passport control was smooth, quick, and friendly. While waiting for our luggage we met up with our driver and without delay we were dispatched to our hotel – the Theranda. The hotel is new and very nice. We were happy to finally visit Albania. Until the 1990s Albania was a closed country. It was nearly impossible for people to visit or for Albanians to leave. Today it welcomes tourists.

We had arranged with to have a guide in Tirana, the capital city. At 9:30 the first morning we met our guide, Martin, on the steps of the Opera in Skanderbeg Square. We toured the main part of the city and learned that Skanderbeg, whose statue dominates the main square, was responsible for keeping the Ottoman Empire from expanding into Europe. After a break for lunch Martin picked us up in a minivan and we went to Kruja, a pretty town an hour from Tirana that clings to a mountainside as do many of the other towns in this mountainous country. Our first stop was the Ethnographic Museum located in an old house depicting how people lived 100 years ago, and some still do. It seemed like a rather comfortable life. The working area was on the bottom level where the animals were kept, olives were pressed, and other work was done. The next level had separate social areas for the men and women. The house belonged to one of the more wealthy family as evidenced by the fact that they had their own steam bath. Nearby was a beautiful new museum basically devoted to Skanderbeg, the national hero. It was surprising to learn how important he was and that we had never heard of him. People around the world are so familiar with American history and politics and Americans are really quite unfamiliar with the rest of the world. We saw signs that said “I Love Obama” and American flags on the buses and elsewhere. Many Albanians have relatives in the United States. Surprisingly, on a display of various cities in the world that have erected statues to Skanderbeg was a picture of the newest one – in Rochester Hills, Michigan, unveiled in 2006. Before heading back to Tirana we wandered through the bazaar which offered a lot of local handicrafts such as felt hats, carpets, and antiques. It was a nice change from the souvenir shops that now seem to sell items that could be purchased anywhere in the world, or often made in China.

Tirana is an easy city to like. It is safe, inexpensive, with a lot of trees, and a canal running through the center. One street, Ismail Qemali, near our hotel is blocked off to traffic and has several very nice restaurants and shady places for coffee. Having coffee with friends is the most popular way to spend time. The food in Albania is excellent mainly because it is all organic due to the fact that the average farmer can not afford the imported fertilizers and pesticides. Amazing - tomatoes taste like tomatoes. They use a lot of lamb in their recipes but the lamb has a very, very mild taste not at all like lamb we are use to.

From Tirana we took a three-hour bus ride to Berat, one of the oldest cities in Albania with layers of white houses ascending the hillsides giving it the name “The City of a Thousand Windows.” The valley has been inhabited for over 4000 years. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Sometimes it is hard to decide where to stay. We opted for Castle Park thinking it was near the castle when in reality is it across the river and about a mile away high on the hillside. However, Castle Park has a wonderful forest-like setting and great views of the mountains plus they supply free shuttle service to the center. It turned out that Martin, our guide in Tirana, was also in Berat so he hooked us up with Flatura, which means butterfly, to give us a tour of the castle. Castle does not really describe the area as it is actually a medieval city or citadel. Located at a strategic point it has wonderful views of the area. It was first fortified in the 4th century BC. Flatura guided us through the cobbled streets past houses that are still occupied to the National Omufi Museum, one of the 42 churches that at one time were within the walls. Only eight remain and only the Museum is open on a regular basis as it has the works of Onufri, Albania’s greatest icon painter. When Berat fell to the Ottomans in 1417 they built two mosques which are some of the oldest in Albania, however only the minaret of the Red Mosque remains.

We met up with Martin for lunch at Mangalemi Hotel located in the historic area below the castle. The hotel has recently added beautiful rooms in a restored house adjacent to the main hotel – all done in the local style. Lunch on the rooftop was delicious with a wide offering of local cuisine including stuffed peppers “the way grandma made them,” lamb with yogurt, and spinach casseroles.

From Berat we took a two-hour bus to Plepa, a turnabout near Durres, where we caught a cab to the Oaz Hotel. The Oaz is a lovely small hotel and since it was mid September the season was coming to a close so we were just about the only people at the hotel. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, and the pool was lovely which was great because the beach, while picturesque, did not invite close inspections. Litter is a problem in Albania. Considering how far they have come in a decade I am sure litter is an issue that they will deal with – for now they are busy building roads and improving infrastructure.

The country is very safe which is amazing because there are hundreds of thousands of bunkers built in the 70s giving testament that it wasn’t always that way. Most bunkers designed for a single person set four feet in the ground with two gun slits above the ground. They were built due to a feared invasion from western countries that never materialized. The people are very friendly and helpful. Albania has a great touristic future.

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