Is Albania on your bucket list? It should be. Where else would you see well-dressed ladies from the city tearing meat off the bones with their fingers? Or seven hundred thousand bunkers built by a mad dictator who thought war was imminent? But could not identify the enemy. The answer is nowhere else.
Here are some very good reasons why Southern Albania should be added to your bucket list.
Gjirokaster (also spelt Gjirokastra) is a UNESCO world heritage site and deservedly so. One of the oldest cities in Albania its development has been influenced by Greeks, Romans and Turks as well as Albanians. The town still boasts many original Ottoman houses built using the distinctive local stone. These grand fortified tower houses are known as kullë and were built as a defence against feuding clans and rebellions. Skenduli House (or Skëndulaj House) is a good example of one of these houses. Typically, these houses were built on three levels topped with a turret roof and featuring wooden balconies and white-washed walls. Inside they were a rabbit-warren of rooms including several bedrooms with their own steam rooms and long drop toilets. In total this particular house had sixty-four windows and nine chimneys. It also features a special room, the wedding room. Weddings are a very special occasion in Albania and a lot of money is spent on this celebration which lasts two days. First the wedding is celebrated at the groom’s home and then it moves on to the bride’s home. During the celebrations large quantities of the local spirit, Rakia, are consumed.
Girokaster is known as the city of stone, the city of a thousand steps and the silver city. The latter reflects the fact that rain makes the local stone shimmer like silver. Several flights of steps lead to Ali Pasha’s fortress that presides over the old town. Ali Pasha Tepelena is an Albanian hero. He was a prolific builder of castles and fortresses during the nineteenth century. He extended the original fortress above Gjirokaster and added the clock tower. This fortress, affectionately known as Ali Pasha’s fortress, was used as a political prison during the Communist era. It now houses the National Museum of Armaments The exhibits include a huge collection of Albanian arms that represent the struggle for independence from 1912 to the end of the Second World War. It also, bizarrely, has an old American fighter plane parked in one of its courtyards. Another courtyard features the Festival Stage. It is here the internationally famous National Folk Festival http://www.albanian-folklore.com/gjirokaster-2015/ has taken place approximately every four years in the autumn since 1968. Albanian singers and dancers from all over the world perform at this festival. Albania has a total population of three million but four million Albanians live outside their country of origin.
Vlora (also spelt Vlorë) is a work in progress due to major developments along its stunning coastline. Nevertheless, it is worth a visit due to its historical significance. It was the first Albanian town to celebrate independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 when Ismail Qemali raised the ‘new’ flag of Albania – a double headed eagle on a red background. Ismail Qemali served as Albania’s first prime minister in this town. These events are celebrated in the National Museum of Independence and the impressive monument in Flag Square.
There is plenty to do here. Stroll along its new promenade that stretches for miles. Browse the local bazaar, climb up the hill to the temple of Kuzum Baba, the centre of the Bektashi sect or just drink coffee in one of the many bars that line the main street. Traditionally, Albanian men spend hours drinking coffee in these bars while the women work.
During my stay in Albania I saw three performances of iso-polyphonic music. The first, I have to be honest, was interesting but uninspiring. Five men in traditional dress sat around a table and at regular intervals broke into song – unaccompanied song. Albanian iso-polyphony is UNESCO protected music. The word iso comes from the ison of Byzantine church music and refers to the drone that accompanies the singing. On this occasion the drone was all that was performed. The second occasion was in the courtyard of the pretty Porto Palermo Castle, another creation of Ali Pasha. This time a female singer, one of Albania’s top singers, sang some haunting melodies accompanied by her drones. It was a very moving performance. On the third occasion a local group came to our hotel and performed some of their own songs. They also danced for us. It was a very happy occasion.
On the cliffs above the Albanian tourist capital of Saranda is Lekuresi Castle. It was built in the early sixteenth century by Sultan Suleyman to protect the coastline of Saranda from invasions by sea. Now it is a restaurant with wonderful views of Saranda below, Corfu and the Ksamil Islands.
Tucked away above the village of Kolonja the Byantine Ardenica Monastery is still occupied by monks, albeit only three. For this reason, it cannot be used for wedding ceremonies but it is a popular venue for photographs of the bride and groom. It was once used for weddings as it is here that another national hero of Albania, Gjergj Kastriori Scandarbeg married Princess Andronika Arianiti. As yet, the monastery is not set up for visitors. Anyone just turning up in the hope of gaining entrance to the monastery may be unlucky. Those accompanied by a local guide will fare better as their guide can arrange for the monastery to be opened by the caretaker. Unless he has raced down the road to a local restaurant, Ardenica Restaurant, to provide them with fresh produce produced in grounds of the monastery.
Ancient City of Apollonia
The Ancient City of Apollonia is not far from the city of Fier. It is set in a large archaeological park that enhances these haunting ruins. Greek settlers from Corinth and Corcyra founded this city in the seventh century BC. For centuries it was once a busy and important harbour but then an earthquake damaged the infrastructure and altered the course of the Vjosa River. Its harbour silted and the trading routes changed so the city suffered a dramatic decline. The artefacts displayed in the on-site museum plot the course of history through the centuries. The building that houses the museum is part of a medieval monastery complex that includes the beautiful old Church of Santa Maria.
Close to Vlore, are some salt pans and Narta Lagoon. While around the edge of the lagoon the visitor may spot some flamingos there. Their grey plumage does not stand out very well but they are there. The lake has an international reputation due to the number of sea birds that call in during the migration period. A rather dilapidated wooden bridge stretches most of the way across the water to Zvërnec Island. To complete the journey to the island the visitor has to hope a boatman will be available to row across the gap. This picturesque island, dotted with beautiful cypress trees has a lovely beach and is home to the Byzantine Saint-Mary Orthodox Monastery.
Piluri is a tiny shepherd’s village in the mountains above the town of Himara and an excellent destination for a jeep safari. Unmade roads divide a stunning landscape of coastline below and stark mountains above. The villagers live on fresh produce including feta cheese, yoghurt, olives, figs and walnuts and are happy to arrange tastings. These tasting usually end with a round of locally produced Rakia, poured from plastic water bottles. The freshness of the produce from this village is so famous that the townsfolk will drive up there to purchase some.
Butrint National Park
Butrint National Park is a national treasure and an extraordinary mixture of buildings from Roman times to its medieval castle. Information boards describe each building facilitate self-guided tours. Butrint has been inhabited since prehistoric times. It was first colonised by the Greeks before the Romans built a city there. It was also a bishopric, a prosperous Byzantine city and was briefly occupied by the Venetians before being abandoned in the Middle Ages when marshes developed in the area.
Albania is definitely a worthy addition to anyone’s bucket list but should be visited soon, while it is still a charming country unspoilt by the ravages of tourism.