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Independent Travel

The Europe of Yesteryear

Travelers to Archaic Albania Find Modern Pleasures

By Johanna Rodriguez

I am not an intrepid American air traveler, and my fears have been exacerbated by current events, so why then should I want to fly to Albania? Albania is not just a longer plane ride, but a country whose history is disconnected from the rest of the European continent by politics and religion.

This is what intrigued me. How had an Islamic country sustained 50 years of nationalistic communism and produced Mother Teresa, the quintessential Catholic saint of the 20th century?

In Tirana, the capital city, there is inadequate electricity and a pedestrian has to scurry across streets with few traffic signals and little light. The sidewalks conceal massive holes, often filled with garbage. Yet we have developed a real fondness for Albanians and Tirana.

From Bari, Italy, ADA Air operates a shuttle plane across the Adriatic. It is best to confirm and reconfirm one’s flight. The plane, a Yakovlev-40, was substandard. La Vikinga ferry lines crosses at regular intervals during warm weather. The trip takes about three and a half hours. Boats from Italy are slower and require an overnight crossing. Finally, several European airline carriers fly directly into Tirana. It is recommended to have local contacts or to come with an organized group.

Albanians are aware of how their land, with its garbage piles (what they call their “accursed mountains”), must be perceived by westerners. At the same time, they are also proud of the ancient Shqiptar heritage. They have less enthusiasm for their recent communist history and disdainfully point out the visual legacy of the 50,000 bunkers, a constant almost comic reminder of government-sponsored paranoia.

Tirana has several decent hotels and more are being built. We stayed in the Miniri, which is adjacent to the Opera House on Skanderbeg Square. The rooms are spartan, but the staff is lovely.

The Opera House is lodged in a simple building (it resembles a small Kennedy Center). Albanian opera is rightfully renowned. For $5 we saw an impressive La Traviata with a full house of enthusiastic opera fans. Sharing the Opera House complex is a fine foreign book store which employs a helpful staff.

The National Archeological Museum is a reminder that Albania is not a relic of totalitarianism but is a birthplace of Western civilization. Not incidentally, it is also Illyria, the exotic land of Shakespeare’sTwelfth Night.

A day trip from Tirana is Kruja Castle, a remarkable site where Gjergj Kastrioti, “Skanderbeg,” marshaled Albanian nationals to defeat the Ottoman Turks. The citadel of Ali Pasha of Tepelene is in the south. Ali Pasha was an ogre known for his cruelty to his enemies as well as for his harem of 600 women. Lord Byron immortalized him in his famous poem Childe Harold.

Also in southern Albania are the important excavations of Butrint and Apollonia, both of which were prosperous Roman-era towns. There is plenty to take in at Apollonia, including the memorable church of Shen Mari and its Byzantine-era monastic buildings.

Albania was isolated for 50 years and missed the European environmental movement. Consequently, Albanian beaches, while beautiful, can be dicey. When Albanian friends wanted to swim, we joined them but kept our heads above the water.

We did dive into Albanian food. Seafood is a specialty and whether we were enjoying Adriatic calamari or Koran fish, found only in Lake Oher or in Lake Baikal, we were pleased with the freshness and preparation. Valle Verde is a wonderful café near the American Embassy where the beautiful people congregate to drink coffee, eat precious little desserts, and smoke. For beverages, raki, a strong, smooth spirit that is similar to Italy’s grappa, is enjoyed throughout the meal. People make their own raki in home-made stills and there is much colorful debate among friends as to whose raki is superior. Coffee is preferred to tea and is served Turkish style.

How does all this smoking and drinking square with Islamic constraints? Albanians seem to have come to terms with earthly pleasures and religious devotion. The result is an admirably personal and private approach to spirituality. One friend gave up drinking for Ramadan, others did not. Furthermore, Albania is home to certain heretical sects of Islam, notably the Bektashi and the Dervishes, both of which are devoted to poetry, music, and dance and, not incidentally, tolerance. After years of oppression by their government, freedom to make one’s own choices is valued.

Perhaps this is why Albania is a welcoming place for Americans. Americans are admired for our entrepreneurial spirit and our perceived tolerance. Was it any wonder that we saw huge posters advertising: “With you, America! A concert to recognize the brutal tragedy of September 11, 2001.”

Why should an American visit Albania? Albania gives the American visitor an opportunity to see a Europe of another age.

JOHANNA RODRIGUEZ lives in Easthampton, M.A. and is a writer for Blackwater Consulting.