Albania’s still a bit rough around the edges, but it has long outgrown its reputation as an isolated and dangerous country. It took a ride across the country by bicycle to find that out.

By Heba Aly


ALBANIA—The sun is out for the first time in days, a welcome relief from the crisp December air of the Adriatic that chills central Europe at this time of year. Snow has just begun to cover the peaks of the imposing North Albanian Alps, finally visible in the distance, free of the curtain of cloud that has veiled most of the landscape thus far. The road is newly paved, and to our surprise, perfectly smooth.

But we cycle into Albania with butterflies in our stomachs. It is, after all, Albania – home to a 40-year dictatorship that, until recently, left it as closed off from the world as North Korea is today. We had been vehemently cautioned not to visit, because, as one acquaintance put it, “the Albanians will steal the shirts off your backs.” Guide books warned of a lack of medical facilities. It was the wild frontier between East and West; a dark unknown place where, we were told, we would be unimpressed, and possibly, in danger.

My boyfriend and I are experienced cyclists by now, having pedaled more than 2,600 km around the Mediterranean, through bad weather, tough terrain and foreign cultures. We have also worked in some of the toughest war zones in Africa – Darfur, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Still, Albania scares us.

We cross the Montenegrin-Albanian border on a quiet country road, some 20 km inland. The stone-faced border official says nothing as he scans our passports through a high-tech database. A black eagle – Albania’s national symbol is as chilling as its reputation – is sewn into a patch on his left arm.  After 15 minutes of unease, we pass through.  Even the dark-haired, black-clad taxi drivers at the end of the road are intimidating. Richard believes they are the Sigurimi, remnants of a time when Albania is believed to have had more secret police relative to its size than any other communist country.

As we pedal away from the border crossing, Albania smacks us in the face immediately, like a gush of cold air, a curtain lifted off an unspoiled way of life, frozen in time. Roosters and pigs run wild on streets that smell of manure. Bicycle-led carts double as taxis and a swamp doubles as a garbage can. Most striking are the bunkers, cement igloos leftover from nefarious tyrant Enver Hoxha’s period of paranoia, which dot the countryside – and indeed the entire country, 700,000 of them! – like suspicious eyes watching our every move.

Barefoot children run out of their yards to talk to us, practicing the few phrases of English they know: “Hello! Do you speak English? What is your name?” People raise their eyebrows, impressed with our journey, and smile. They are friendlier and more genuine than any we have seen in four months of travel across Europe.

Suddenly, we are reminded why we so feared Albania. We pass a group of children, playing on a balcony overhead. I wave and call out to them: “Hello!” In response comes a barrage of Albanian words and a flying object – a toy car, a piece of wood or plastic perhaps, it happens too quickly to tell – in our direction.

“They just threw something at us!” my boyfriend says, scandalized, as he picks up speed. We approach another group of boys and pedal past without speaking, afraid they too may be preparing a full frontal attack. But as we ride into Shkodra, Albania’s fourth largest town, past the workers carrying 10-foot-long sheets of metal on their shoulders, the masses of local cyclists driving in the wrong direction, the men selling cigarettes out of plastic bags and cell phones on cardboard boxes, I can’t help but feel at home. We have found a small piece of Africa in the midst of Europe. This is what we had come for.

Sure, Albania may be rough around the edges. But for all its chaos, it has a sincerity, a vibrancy and a rawness that made it the highlight of our trip. Despite decades of isolation, its people have preserved a tradition of hospitality that – in the next few days – would draw us into their lives, their history and their desire for change.

***

Albanians are descendants of the Illyrians, a set of largely unknown tribes that settled in the western Balkans during the 2nd millennium BC. Their language is unlike any other, on par with Basque as one of the oldest and most unique in Europe. Despite a never-ending string of invasions by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, Turks and finally, the Axis powers of World War 2, they managed to maintain their identity in part because their tribal lifestyle in remote mountains of the north kept them isolated.

But the Italian invasion of 1939 would change the country forever. From it, and the subsequent German foray, sprung the Albanian Communist Party, with Enver Hoxha, the once obscure, French-schooled son of a Muslim cloth merchant, as first secretary. After the war, the Communist partisans took power and Hoxha became not only president, but ‘Supreme Comrade’. He instructed people to call him Uncle Enver.

Rapprochement first with the USSR, then with China, led Albania to so strict a communism that luxuries like umbrellas and pencils had to be smuggled in, owning a Beatles tape could land you in prison, and attempting to leave the country – delimited by barbed wire anyway – could get you shot on the spot.

After breaking ties with post-Mao China, Hoxha found himself isolated and increasingly paranoid that Albanians would begin to realize the “People’s Paradise” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The bunkers were part protection and part a project to keep people busy building them. After Hoxha’s death and the collapse of the communist regime, the early 1990s played host not only to mass exodus and general instability, but eventually anarchy.

The transition to democracy and capitalism was less than smooth, and in 1997 Albanians took to the streets in protests that led to country-wide riots, after many Albanians lost most of their savings in failed pyramid-investment schemes.

The pendulum has swung back into balance in the last decade. Today, Albania is striving to reinvent itself – “We have to forget about that time and move forward,” one Albanian told me. Its people are desperately trying to erase their grey past and repaint their canvas with bright, beautiful colors. Literally.

In the capital, Tiranë, mayor Edi Rama had the grey, concrete buildings of the communist years painted with pink polka-dots, purple swirls and rainbow stripes. Hoxha’s mausoleum was converted into a disco and then into a trade show center, his body dumped into a regular cemetery like everyone else’s. The former exclusive communist enclave, Blloku, is now a chic district where women in tight jeans and heals strut past top fashion shops and gambling centers, glittering restaurants and fancy cafes. Some bunkers are being removed with cranes or simply toppled over.

We spend one night with Thoma Kajana, a prim and proper, military-style family man in the beautiful Ottoman city of Berat. He, too, is trying to find his way in this new world of opportunity.

“Before, we could never meet foreigners,” he tells us, as he picks us up in the 16th century stoned Gorica neighborhood and walks us through narrow alleyways lined with vines to his home.

During the communist years, “bourgeois” families like his were required to host a second family in their homes for the equivalent of 15 cents a month. His wife was forbidden from attending university. Her parents were well-off and thus she needed to learn how to be a true worker.

Today, their family is full of plans. In 2005, Berat’s historic centre became one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Albania, and tourists are starting to trickle in.

“We think to sell artisanal jams,” Kajana proclaims over a dinner of pickled cabbage, feta cheese, classic Napolitana, salad and sumptuous rabbit in tomato sauce. “My wife is very good cook.”

In addition, of course, to offering bed-and-breakfast services in their home, opening a coffee shop in the city’s historic mountain-top castle, and setting up a bar/resto as well as an information booth in the city center – all of which Kajana recounts so excitedly he can’t finish his sentences.

We climb up to Berat’s famous kala, or castle, still inhabited today, its origins dating back to the 4th century BC. Like many of Albania’s largely unappreciated ruins from Greek, Roman and Byzantine times, the castle sits quietly atop a rocky hill, without tourist information placards or for that matter… tourists. (The castle’s museum is closed the day we visit).

We have just entered the inner fortress walls, looking lost and confused, when a scruffy character wearing jeans, pointy black shoes, and a leather jacket punctured with cigarette burns approaches us. His long grey hair is greasy and he smells of raki spirits (a clear, aniseed-flavoured liquor that is a close relation to Greek ouzo). And like someone who hasn’t showered in far too long.

“You want to see the cistern?”

We had read of the cistern, but couldn’t find it. He leads us there, speaking to us in a mix of his little English and Italian. We don’t speak Italian, but it becomes our modus operandi here in Albania.

“Heba, come!” he calls to me, walking ahead of us with the eagerness of a little child. He leads us past the acropolis to a view of the entire city. “Panorama!”

With that, he puts my Nikon around his neck, and climbs a nearby electricity pole to get the best shot of us. “Fantastico!”

After the panorama, comes the 600-year-old San Trinita church with the few remaining frescoes that survived Ottoman times, and the secret tunnel for water delivery. At the end of our hour-long unofficial tour, we hand him 200 leke, or $2, our contribution to a growing number of people trying to fill a gap in Albania’s emerging tourist industry. Most tourist offices here are either hard to find or closed, and the real information comes from private companies, like Celisa, which has produced a series of guidebooks on each major city in Albania.

But the government is slowly realizing the treasures its country holds, and tourism is becoming a growing priority.

Albania is ever more a member of the international community, with a visit by George Bush in 2007, accession to NATO in 2008 and an increasingly supported bid to join the European Union. In short, interest in Albania is growing, and the government in hoping to take advantage.

In 2008, Albania launched an advertising campaign on CNN, proclaiming itself the “undiscovered land.” And so it is.

***

After four days of rain, we’d simply had enough.

The mostly uninhabited forest of the southern Albanian coast line was supposed to be beautiful, the last unspoiled stretch of the Mediterranean. We’d cycled the 1000m high Logara Pass just to see the breathtaking views, but on that cold December day, all that stood beyond the narrow, winding mountain road was a thick curtain of fog and more rain. So when we pedaled up to small, uninspiring Lukovë village in dripping helmets and water-filled shoes, we opted for a bus the rest of the way.

The next bus was 45 minutes away, so we tucked ourselves into a small plastic-tarp shelter for a coffee. Oresti, the owner, insisted we stay warm, resting a small heater over a stack of bags of chips. An hour later, the bus still had not come. Four hours later, we were still there, laughing and distracted, drinking raki on the house, surrounded by old Albanian men who communicated with us mostly using hand gestures. Only a handful of people in the village spoke passable English.

As night began to fall, we wondered where we would sleep. It was too late now to tackle the unlit mountain roads. “If the bus doesn’t come,” I joked to Oresti, “we’re sleeping here, in this kiosk.”

“If no bus, you sleep in my home. No hotel. My home. No money,” he insisted with a look on his face that meant he was absolutely serious.  A few minutes later, a woman named Katarina came to our rescue, offering us and our bikes a ride in her truck.

“It’s so nice to see tourists in our village,” she said in perfect English, her certette brushing her highlighted brown hair off her young, smiling face. “It’s nice here, but it’s a bit wild…. Oh, and are you hungry? Would you like to come in to my house for lunch before we leave?”

This kind of hospitality was characteristic of our stay. In Poshnje, a small village outside of Berat, a hotel owner offered us a delicious meal called tava on the house: rice, chicken, salad, fried cheese and home-made wine, along, of course, with raki.

In Mamurras, a spec on the map some 30 km outside of Tiranë, a teenage boy refused to accept payment at his internet café and the hotel owner insisted on carrying my fully loaded bicycle up two sets of stairs.

When we asked for directions in the port city of Vlorë, a pizza shop manager hopped into his car and led us to where we wanted to go. (During the communist years, maps were state secrets, so many Albanians can’t even read them, let alone draw them).

There is a saying here that in the Albanian home, the guest comes before God. Entrenched in its 15th century legal code, hospitality is so important that a host is required to avenge the death of a guest as part of the centuries-old custom of blood feuds in the north.

“Albanians are the most hospitable people on earth,” says Gjon Dukgilaj, owner of a high-class, yet affordable, restaurant in Shkodra, where traditional swords decorate the stone walls and garlands of garlic fall from the dark wood ceiling. For about $20 each, we are served – without ever looking at a menu – a selection of traditional foods by waiters in qeleshe skull caps, wide-sleeved embroidered shirts, red sashes and black pants: wild boar steak cooked before us over an open wood-burning hearth just steps from our table; a variety of pickled salads; hot cow’s cheese, sautéed with oil, garlic and herbs in an earthenware pot; filo pastries stuffed with meat; stuffed grape-vine leaves… the list goes on and on.

In contrast to the countryside, where meat still hangs for sale on hooks on the side of the street, Albania’s big cities are booming with new hotels, luxurious restaurants, trendy young people and a hugely disproportionate number of used Mercedes and BMWs that couldn’t pass emissions regulations in other parts of Europe.

Dukgilaj says business at his restaurant has doubled in the last couple years, as Albania begins recovering from the legacy of socialism that almost destroyed it.

“Now, Albania’s image is starting to change in Europe,” he says, biting down on walnuts, over a post-meal tea and more cherry-flavored raki.  “In the last two years, tourism has increased 30-40 percent.”

Hotels and gas stations are being built faster than they can be used and the major highway from Shkodra to Tiranë is undergoing a facelift. The hostel culture is even beginning to take hold here, with a half dozen setting up shop in the last few years, mostly in Tiranë, but also in Berat and the southern coastal city, Saranda.

Still, much of Albania remains an image of the past, its lack of development making it culturally stimulating in a way that much of Europe cannot be (but also earning it the reputation of “Europe’s Mexicans” or “the Yemen of Europe”). That is soon to change.

“Before, in Albania, nobody knew much about the world,” says the generous restaurant owner from Poshnje, Partizan Ismailaj. (When birth registration officials suggested to his father that he call his son Partizan, refusal could have been a black mark on his record). “It took 2-3 months to find out news in America. So we are a bit behind other countries… But everyday, it’s changing. The development, even the mentality, it’s changing.”

“Albania is not the country most other people think. It’s different.”