Amongst my collection of travel guides and other memorabilia is a 1989, first edition copy of “Eastern Europe on a shoestring”. This very battered and well-thumbed book travelled with me for a whole summer in 1991 on a journey that went to Czechoslovakia and back.
One place we didn’t go into was Albania, the “Land of the eagle”. Our guidebook was very clear – no entry unless you were part of a tour package. However, in reality, by 1991, Albania was slowly emerging from the years of isolationism after the death of its great dictator, Enver Hoxha, in 1985. Fast forward to summer 2016 and there I finally was, ironically as part of a tour group, handing over my passport at Tirana airport being waved happily into the modern Albania. When I travel I keep a diary of the sensations each country gives me; the sights, smells and sounds that engross me. Here then is my sense of Albania as I experienced it this August.
Kruja: The bustle of the bazaar leading up to the castle – home of Skandeberg, hero and Balkan icon. Hats and more hats. The sounds of weddings fill the evenings, car horns blaring and dancing music. The bride appears sad, dictated to by tradition. In the castle grounds the tombs of dervish leaders are hidden amongst old olive trees.
Heading to Shkodra we find Italian villas and cafe society. The Marubi photographic archive is a black and white treasure trove of old Albania, documenting history in the making. Lake Shkodra glitters as we eat fish in the late summer sun. The Rozafa fortress tells tales of maligned brides as newly weds carefully pick their way in flip-flops up the slippery cobbled road. As dusk falls the women disappear and men fill the pavement cafes.
Heading past fields of pumpkin and melon, littered with half hidden bunkers, we climb into the Accursed Mountains and the Valbona National Park. Glacial green rivers flow over olive mosses and white limestone. Cornflower studded meadows and juniper bushes give way to fir tree forests. The mountain roads echo in the early evening with the bells of wandering livestock. Climbing high we drink mountain tea and spy bear prints in the dirt. We learn of the rules of blood feud and revenge, hidden amongst the hospitality and honour of the mountains.
Albania intrigues. With a past steeped in ancient history and a generation isolated from the rest of Europe, there is much to learn about and experience in this corner of the Balkan peninsular.
Next stop: Kosovo.
©Chez l’abeille 2016