Intrepid Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia

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Europe » Albania
September 7th 2016
Published: September 25th 2016
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We have just arrived in Kosovo from Albania, and well into our Intrepid trip so it’s high time I update this blog!

We arrived in Tirana, Albania from Brussels really tired. After waiting ages at the airport to get our passports checked (no stamps) and baggage, we hopped into a cab to our hotel. When we hit the city centre it was hello Tirana!! Really hectic traffic particularly around roundabouts! After a cat nap we went to a local café and a general walk around. We seemed to be in the ‘downtown’ area or so we thought. It reminded us of a mini-Cairo, or any other city in the Middle East due to the chaotic traffic. Later we had decided to go for a free walking tour of the city at 6pm. We really didn’t know much about Albania to begin with, other than its geographical location, its capital Tirana and that it was relatively isolated until recently.

We joined the free walking tour in front of the National History Museum. Our guide Gazi, a Tirana native, showed us the massive mosaic that covers the façade of the museum which shows Albania through the times – victorious and proud from Illyrian times through to WWII. He then showed us the country’s national hero dating back to Ottoman times, Iskender Bey – his statue towering over Skanderberg square. We went to see the city’s historical Mosque Et’hem Bey Mosque. Albania, ‘officially’ 60% Muslim, only about 2% actually practice it (along with the Catholic and Orthodox populations) so Muslims drinking alcohol and eating pork is quite common in Albania. Our guide told us during communist times, Enver Hoxha the communist leader, made Albania into the world’s first Atheist state. That might sound ok, no state religion, but considering people, including priests, imams etc were threatened with imprisonment or worse, death, for practicing religion then yes it was pretty bad! At the ‘cloud’ modern art instillation in front of the art gallery, Gazi told us about the communist times and life during communist rule and after democracy at the end of 1991. He compared it to modern day North Korea- no contact with anyone outside Albania, under the dictatorship people were fed propaganda that Albania was the best country with the best system and other countries were suffering. If anyone dare escape, they were imprisoned, forced labour or worse, shot, along with their family – collective punishment. Under communism, people worked on the land with very limited basic necessities such as food (bread and salt for example). Hoxha believed that other countries under communist rule e.g. Yugoslavia (who offered for Albania to join their larger state) Russia etc were too lenient in their version of Communism. Except China, Albania joined and allegiance with China under Maoist rule for awhile. Even the Chinese were singing songs to Hoxja under Mao! Until sometime later when Hoxha decided China now was too lax in their communism when they started trading with the USA. Finally at the beginning of 1991, after some push from a growing opposition there were ‘free’ elections at the beginning of 1991, which weren’t really free so communism once again won. However, in December of 1991 elections were once again held and this time a bigger majority voted for democracy and communism finally fell in Albania.

Today, Albania is a fast growing economy with lots of big business and banks being set up. The walking tour was great – we went to Blloku, the main nightlife/trendy district of Tirana and saw the Pyramid, an old monument to Hoxha which is quite decrepit now and one of 700 000 (!!) communist bunkers which were built out of paranoia during communist times. Afterward we ate a cheap dinner near the hotel. The next day we set out for a long walk around the city in vain hope to find modern clothes shops. We failed in our quest and later discovered the big shopping malls are outside of town. We had drinks at the Skybar and had 360 degree views of Tirana.

6pm that night we met our Intrepid group. A mix of nationalities and ages (Australians, New Zealanders, a Canadian and Irish). Our group leader, Nir, is 100 x better than our last group leader Darko so we’re really thankful. We actually had been expecting to have an Albanian leader but as Nir (who’s German-Isreali) explained that its difficult for Albanians to a) get visa’s out of the country even across the border and b) Albanians can’t work outside the country. So with the formalities were out of the way the group was off to dinner in the trendy part of town. Afterward 4 of us went for drinks at the Skybar.

The next day I wasn’t feeling well so I slept in and missed Nir’s walking tour. So we went out for coffee and a walk around until we met the group later for our bus trip to Skhoder! Skhoder is a pretty town in Northern Albania. After settling into our atmospheric accommodation, we went for a walk around town and then hopped into taxi’s to the city’s castle. Breathtaking views at the top of the castle. Nir was very good in explaining the history of the castle (which I forget) and I couldn’t help smiling when I thought of Selim in Lebanon (at Baalbek ‘how did they build this…..?! 3000 years before Christmas!) We had a lovely dinner in the hotel’s courtyard with dishes and dishes of fresh salads and meats. The Albanians, like other Mediterranean countries, are very healthy with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats and enjoy a long life span thanks to the Mediterranean diet.

The next day we set off by mini van to Koman to catch a 3 hour ferry go Fierza. The ferry ride itself was breathtaking. We sat up the top and enjoyed views of the river and the vast expanse of the mountains encasing the river. Nir pointed out the ‘busboat’ it was an old bus and the top was cut out and put on a boat to make a ferry. Brilliant!! When we got to Fierze we found a mini bus to take us to accommodation the mountains, Vila Dini. After we all settled in and had lunch the group went for a walk around the village. I was still getting over my cold so I slept for the afternoon. Then dinner time (I really hadn’t been doing much that day!). Dinner was much like our other dinners – a plethora of salads, cheese, bread and meat. After we had more or less finished dinner it was lights out – a power outage! As we were high in the mountains, rain had set in and the main source of power was hydro electricity produced in dams we saw along the way, power outages were common. So we very carefully trampled upstairs in the dark. We kindly got given a candle from our fellow traveller and I had a shower in the dark (gas heating!)

The next day, our last day in Albania, with the power out still, we set out with our guide for a gentle hike through the mountains. As Bill was telling me yesterday, the hotel is owned by our guide’s father and he had come back from Tirana to run the hotel for his dad. The hike was really nice but cold!!! At the top of one of the mountains we stopped for coffee (Albanian coffee, which is Turkish/Greek coffee!). Walking back down and then along the road to our lunch venue to meet the rest of the group who didn’t go on the hike was freezing as it started to rain again! After lunch we went back go Vila Dini for some free time before we went for a walk in the village to meet our hosts’ uncle. A few hours later we were walking in the drizzle to a small house to meet the uncle. Sitting in a small hut decorated with bags of onions hanging from the ceiling, we were offered home made grape raki – fairly potent stuff! So we asked the uncle questions about village life and he told us about life under communism. Shared land and famine, no farmer owned his property until the fall of communism where, with the introduction of democracy, if you had worked the land you could claim ownership of the land. A very informative talk. Afterward we walked back go Vila Dini and hopped in a minivan to another restaurant for our final dinner in Albania – and yes the power came back on at lunchtime! The next day we were off to Kosovo!!


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