Sunday, September 17, 2006

Time For a Visit?

Once in a while a kind reporter writes a glowing article about Albania. These just might do some good in counteracting the more numerous negative articles which seem to get a lot more attention. Here's a nice one which I tend to agree with. Nothing in it really surprises me!

From the Charlotte Observer 09/17/2006

Formerly Morose Albania Now Lively, Inviting
What awaits you there? Beaches, warm people, Roman ruins, fab food

TONY WHEELER

What country has Roman and Greek ruins, a stretch of Mediterranean coast yet to be discovered by international tourism, a beautiful old mountain town with UNESCO World Heritage status, good food, wine and beer, a buzzing entertainment district in the capital city and an international airport named after the world's most famous nun?

Give up? It's Albania.

Albania? Wait a minute. Isn't that the place with the craziest strain of communism, where Stalinism and Maoism both got dropped for not being pure enough?

Wasn't communism followed by a financial collapse where three-quarters of the population lost their life savings in banking pyramid schemes? Isn't the whole place littered with concrete bunkers? And Mother Teresa was Albanian?

Well, times change, and Albania certainly has.

I'd flown in from Vienna, wandered around the center of the capital, Tirana, to get my bearings, and at dusk found myself in Blokku -- literally "the block" -- with some Albanian friends.

"In the communist era, you simply were not allowed in the block," Nevila explained. "This whole area was completely closed off to ordinary people."
"That was Hoxha's house," she said, referring to Enver Hoxha, the man who had led Albania with an iron hand from 1944 to 1985. The dwelling she pointed to could easily have been a nondescript house in some American suburb; it certainly didn't look as if he had been squirreling the money away during his 40 years at the helm of his increasingly isolated country.

Today Hoxha could walk out the front door, cross the street and pop straight in to the Buda Bar to check what's on the cocktail list. Blokku has become the bar, cafe and restaurant center of the new Tirana.

The bright lights of Tirana might have been a colorful revelation, but it was only the first in a string of surprises that Albania would trot out throughout the next week.

The next day, Nevila and I headed south to explore more of the new Albania in a weeklong loop that sampled ruins, churches, beaches, castles, museums and an awful lot of food.

After 40-plus years of communist short rations, Albanians seem to be eating up for lost time. At one lunchtime stop with some people we'd met, I extravagantly grabbed the check. We'd had hearty bowls of soup, plates of robust bread, bowls of the usual fresher-than-fresh salad, side plates of almonds and cheese, more plates of lasagna, washed down with bottles of mineral water and followed by bowls of early season cherries and slices of honeyed cake. The bill for the six of us came to 1,000 lek -- about $11 with a tip.

Between the coffee stops along the road, the filling lunches, the evening feasts and perhaps a little too much wine, there had also been some wonderful sights.

One day, I'd find myself marveling at the beautiful icons and wall paintings in the Onufri Museum in an old church in Berati; the next day it would be the magnificently dark and brooding houses of Gjirokastra. Then it was down to the coast to the Roman ruins of Butrinti, in their own little island national park and with a fine new museum on the hilltop overlooking the site.

Farther up the coast, we stopped for the night at the port and low-key beach resort of Himara, where in the morning I strolled down to the beach to inspect some fine examples of Hoxha's most curious obsession: bunkers.

For some reason, the dictator had got it into his head that tiny Albania was threatened by some malevolent outside force. America? Russia? Italy? Greece? China? Who knows?

The solution was to litter the country with mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers where the brave citizens of Albania could retreat to defend their homeland. By the end of his reign, Albania had 700,000 of them, one for every four people in the country. There's a half-dozen of them on the beach at Himara, gazing blindly out across the Adriatic Sea toward Italy.

Farther north, the road climbed precipitously away from the coast to the Llogaraja Pass, where for a brief spell we had beach and snow-capped peaks in the same picture frame.

We dropped back down toward sea level and visited more ruins, Greek ones this time, at Apollonia, then stopped for another hearty meal looking out over the plains from a hilltop restaurant at Ardenica. The small town had another superb church in its monastery, complete with ancient wooden choir stalls and glowing golden wall paintings.

Finally, before we turned back to Tirana, there was a visit to Durresi, the country's major port. The town has a terrific new museum, a crumbling old Roman amphitheater, an imposing war memorial (the Albanians fought the German invaders during World War II with heroic ferocity) and quite the best bunker re-use I've seen anywhere in the country.

There's really not much you can do with a bunker -- most of them were so small they'd be cramped as a dog kennel -- but on the beach at Durresi a larger version has been turned into the bunker bar at the Bunkeri Restaurant. Just don't stand up too quickly under the very solid sloping roof; they were designed to be tank proof.

Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler has contributed to numerous guidebooks.

The article continues with good tourist info like how to get there and where to stay. Check it out!

And wouldn't you know it... reading the article makes me really homesick for Tirana!

3 comments:

Stelle In Italia said...

how great--what a good article, too! makes me want to visit!

MsDemmie said...

What a fantastic write up - they of course omit another good reason for viviting - YOU and P !!!!!!!!!

Ginnie said...

Awwww. I know that feeling, T1. Do you know when you'll go back?