Albania

Albania and the Albanians: a country and people above their reputations

Not so long ago, Albania was still one of the most closed countries in the world. Its name still evokes, even today, war, obscurantism, a violent mafia and vendettas pursued over 10 generations 

 
Denying that the country has problems would be wrong, but the traveller will find more good surprises than bad ones.

Development in Albania is difficult, even slow, it’s true. This country doesn’t attract crowds and that’s both a shame and a great thing. Spared (still) from mass tourism, Albania offers everything a real traveller could wish for: authenticity.

Përhëndetje Shqipëri! Emri im është Christine, unë jam francez, bukur të takoj! Hi Albania! 

 

Albania is a country to be discovered with patience

 
It can only surprise by the warm welcome reserved for visitors.
It is rich in culture, history, gastronomy and magnificent landscapes. But in order to  harvest of all this, one should not demand that everything will be easy, Albania is being explored in small steps.
There are two types of accommodation available here: luxury accommodation or youth hostels, which are not always at the top. The infrastructure in the attractive areas is well done, but in the others there is still some work to be done. But this is not the most important thing, the Albanians are waiting for you outside, curious and affable.
Albania is one of those countries that you have to tame little by little, to deserve. It should not be judged quickly. It is true that the Albanians are not as smiling and dazzling in their approach as they are in the countries that are used to tourists. But once contact has been established, the ice has been broken, the Albanians are very friendly.
 

Beneath the superficial coldness of the Albanians lies a trove of kindness

 
The Albanians are marked by history, poverty, a mad dictatorship. The women show frozen, tired, sometimes distrustful faces. But if you make the effort to give them a smile, to say a few words, what generosity!
Take a few minutes to admire the hand-knitted socks and hats they sell on the market. Ask a few questions, to take an interest in them and you will be thanked a hundredfold.
 

Well then, why don’t we go to Albania? 

 
The country’s reputation is disastrous. There are many reasons for that. Albania has been for almost 40 years locked up by the insane regime of dictator Enver Hoxha. The traces are still visible: collapsed “monuments”, abandoned buildings and faltering economic development.
The country suffers from water and electricity supply problems. Health care is still very poor and public institutions (education, health, justice…) are subject to major political crises.
The country is suffocating under stereotypes: the Albanian mafia, famous in cinema, is frightening. This celebrity is not overused (alas) but it is the Albanian citizens who are the privileged victims.
 

A distinction must be made between Albanians in Albania and expatriates

 
The Albanians massively left the country under the dictatorship and it continues. They are among the first asylum seekers in Europe in 2017. Not all studies are unanimous about but all experts agree on a point: there are more Albanians outside the country than inside. There are large minorities in Greece, Kosovo, Italy, Serbia, Northern Macedonia and Montenegro. It is these minorities that we hear about most often on the news.
 

A deeply rooted and very conservative culture

 
The structure of Albanian identity and culture does not always lend itself to change. The code of honour, the Kanun, is still present in the countryside. It could be compared to other countries that are now resolutely modern and have come a long way to free themselves from retrograde and violent traditions. An example? In Sicily, until recently (1970), love kidnapping, this charming tradition, was widely practiced. The suitor did not have much to do. It was enough to kidnap the beloved woman, rape her in a quiet corner and then propose marriage. Once her virginity was lost and thus her honor, the young lady and especially her family could only accept.
Sicily has come a long way since then, Albania can do as well.
 

In Albania (as elsewhere), don’t do anything stupid! 

 
You have to be respectful of traditions and pay attention to relations between men and women. Here we don’t joke about honour and insults. But these are cases that mostly affect Albanians. The foreigner is unlikely to have such problems. Beware, however, of amorous or sexual liaisons, tradition is on the watch!  
In Albania, there are still unbreakable traditions but the visitor is not there to change them, right? To love Albania, you should not judge it. It is perfect, the traveller is not a teacher. 
 

So why visit Albania then? 

 

The people, the culture and the adventure. Albania invites the traveller off the beaten track!

 
Albania is not the place where you are going to be stripped or cut into pieces on a dark street corner. Of course, it is always better not to do anything stupid, but this rule applies to the whole world. The traveller who is prepared for the worst will be desappointed and surprised by the welcome he will receive.
 

The country is betting heavily on tourism, a vector of change and economic improvement

 
The inhabitants will do their utmost to ensure that the stay goes well. Hospitality is a tradition and in Albania, as you have understood, they don’t joke about it.
Albania’s strong point for an adventurous heart is that it is not at all touristy. The country is becoming more and more popular, so it’s the perfect time to go there for a visit.
 

To seduce the curious, Albania has some great assets

 
The Adriatic coastline competes largely with Greece or Croatia. There are fine sandy beaches, clear waters, and quiets creeks, such as in Ksamil or Drimades.
There are picturesque, authentic villages also. Tortuous alleys, old churches and a good climate.
The national parks are wild, wooded, crossed by clear rivers and prestigious lakes. It is a real paradise for hiking. The wilderness enthusiasts will be rewarded for their efforts, a real bird reserve, the Karavasta lagoon is a must in the country.
 

Discovering Albanian history and culture

 
The culture also deserves to be studied, the territory abounds in archaeological sites, fortified towns, ancient villages.
Contemporary history is, of course, worth looking at. The Leaf Museum exhibits about the terrible years of repression takes the visitor on an incredible dive into obscurantism. If you are not claustrophobic, the 3-star bunker of the mad dictator can also be visited.

A mad desire for change: Albanians dream of a new Albania

 

Even though it is predominantly Muslim, in December Albania celebrates Christmas like Berlin or Strasbourg. It is interesting to see the families, couples coming to the square of Tirana in the evening, to take pictures of the children’s astride a lighted reindeer. When I chat with them, with all the diplomacy that is required, I ask them if they are aware of the religious side of this celebration.
The answer leaves me very confused: “Of course! But we want our Christmas too! It’s such a beautiful celebration, the birth of a child, it’s magnificent! It’s peace, it’s hope!“.
Giant Christmas tree, old merry-go-round, flashing sleighs and… a real Christmas market with terrace, hot wine, music and grilled sausage… They put all their heart into it and I must say that mine beat a bit faster than usual.
Religion doesn’t matter. It’s something to see them so enthusiastic. The Albanians want another Albania, they want a happyness, stability and safy. They want parties and music, art, freedom and hope.
The path is difficult but not impossible.

Guxoni Shqipërinë, zemra ime është me ju!

 

What do they eat in Albania? 

 
The local cuisine is a great mix. Occupied successively by Greeks, Italians, Ottomans, each culture has left its traces. So you will find kebab, with a lot of mutton, polenta, stuffed vine leaves, typical Balkan salads but also goulash.
It’s generally copious, good and not very expensive. No doubt about it, in Albania they eat well. The meat is good and well cooked. As drinks, there is local wine and Raki. Fruits and vegetables are waiting for visitors on the market stalls but above all, you should not miss the cheese.
The desserts will not bring any great surprise because the baklava is king but the rice pudding flavoured with cinnamon is worth to taste. 
 
In the streets of Tirana, some restaurants rely on tradition but you’ll be amazed. The setting is superb, typical, nice tables with tablecloths and pretty decoration await the gourmets. Several young (and not so young) chefs have decided to restore the colours of Albanian cuisine and it is frankly successful. 

Mirupafshim, faleminderit Shqipëri, mirupafshim, të shohim së shpejti!

Albanie

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