Albania what a surprise! : The Tribune India

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Albania what a surprise!

It’s called one of Europe’s best kept secrets, & not without reason

Albania what a surprise!

The snow-clad mountains, even in May, on the northern Montenegrin and Kosovar border.

Bijo Mathew Philip

In a scene from the Spike Lee thriller ‘Inside Man’, a woman is asked by FBI agents investigating a high-profile bank robbery to help decipher an audio clip. She laughingly affirms that while it is Albanian, it is an old long-winded radio speech by Enver Hoxha, the late dictator. The scene seems to fit the western stereotype of an obscure little country, tucked somewhere in the Balkans, notorious for its dark mafia network.

Modern beach-front hotels dot the mid-sized port town of Vlorëis. Photo by the writer

Such clichés ignite my curiosity to travel and form my own opinions. 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 this year. The e-visa portal was easy to navigate. Located in continental Europe, the country is mountainous, with a long and picturesque coast on the Adriatic Sea. It can be covered extensively in about a week. Room and car rentals are inexpensive and Albania has a reputation of offering excellent food and wine.

Albania is known for its excellent food and wine.

Post World War-II, the country charted its own course. Social reforms, tribal alignments and land redistribution led to development of a strong economy based on agriculture. Albania is now a nascent democracy and is gradually shedding its aloofness, opening its borders to tourists from all over. It has traditionally maintained strong relations with Italy across the Adriatic. The borders are now secure despite a very large native Albanian presence in neighbouring Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Albania’s infrastructure is more developed in the southern part. There is greater tourist activity in the towns south of capital Tirana like Vlore or Gjirokaster. Instinctively, I chose to head towards its less developed north. We booked a room at Razem, a little village tucked in the Dinaric Alps.

Budget airline Wizz Air operates flights between Abu Dhabi and Tirana twice a week. We landed in Tirana by the afternoon and stayed at a hotel in the suburbs where the rental agency delivered our car. We started early next morning and it took almost the entire day to cover the 100-odd miles to Razem on the Montenegrin border. Mother Teresa’s village and the lakeside town of Shkoder were on the way. We spent some time at the medieval Ruzafa castle, with dales in full bloom all around. Shkodra lake and the mountains beyond were visible from the castle. A very swollen Drin river joins Buna, that flows out from Shkodra lake westward towards Adriatic Sea a few miles away.

Razem is a little mountain village that was once a summer getaway for military bigwigs of the Hoxha era. The sun was setting as we negotiated the last few miles on the narrow, single-lane mountain road through dry brushwood. We drove slowly around the many hairpin bends, half expecting a deer or a wolf. Our hotel had seen better days. The bare hills facing our window still had snow in May.

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

A PhD in physics, he was on the Balkan section of his cycling tour of Europe when Covid-19 struck. He was left stranded in Razem when the borders were abruptly closed. He chose to stay, making a living doing odd jobs. He now works at the hotel and also provides a safe haven for stray dogs, cats and horses.

Bene volunteered to come with us and the next three days we explored the mountains on the northern Montenegrin and Kosovar border. We walked, trekked and climbed the rough and craggy hills with forests, hidden crevices and its waterfalls with brilliant rainbows. The locals, while curious about our looks, were thoroughly welcoming. 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 planted with cabbage, lettuce, spinach and tomato. Sheep and cattle farms and Hoxha’s gun bunkers dotted the countryside. Lonely villages scattered all around the northern hill country were connected by roads only by the 21st century. Till then, these hardy people had their own rules steeped in tradition.

The region was especially known for ‘Gjakmarrja’, a blood feud running for generations between rival families. We would walk by a lonely, fortified tower house used by those involved in the feud or a memorial for a local war hero every now and then. It reminded us of the not-so-peaceful past.

Albanian food looked familiar. It was Mediterranean with grilled, baked or stewed meat, locally produced vegetables and fruits, olive oil, cheese of many types, honey, chickpeas, types of corn or wheat bread, berry preserves and jams. We typically had a light breakfast from the hotel and for lunch a local pie called Byrek, with a filling of spinach or meat. A three-course dinner at the hotel did not cost more than $15.

While a glass of local wine was excellent to start the meal, I found Rakia, the locally distilled fruit liquor, a bit too hard for my taste buds. So too was the local beer and we stuck to the familiar German and Belgian beers.

Coastal Albania, south of Tirana, seemed a world apart from the rustic mountain country in the north. Here the highways were dual-carriageways and there were swanky coffee shops and diners all along. Vlorëis, a mid-sized port town, reminded of Batumi on the Black Sea. It had its share of modern beach-front hotels. A drive down south was through the plateau. A detour revealed excellent uninhabited beaches with high cliffs of the Albanian Riviera. There were a few islands visible from the shore. Further south are the riveira towns of Sarandë, Ksamil and Gjirokaster on the hills. Mercs and Audis with West European number plates sped past, perhaps to these towns or Greece beyond.


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