Oct 17, 2014

Albania: Ride in a time capsule

Xsamil beach in Albania with Corfu island in the back.

A view of Saranda, Albania.

When the ferry departing Corfu island of Greece lands in Saranda, Albania one feels like riding in a time capsule. Indeed, the town and the promenade were a mixture of Beirut, Kusadası and Kumburgaz (a cheap summer house place in Istanbul) but back in the 1980s. Right across from Italy, and northwest of Greece, one wonders how Albania could remain what it is even today. Politics, as always, is the answer of course but for all the destitute feeling of the barren customs control and run down buildings of the communist era in Saranda, there is a certain naiveness in the air. It is not only the niceness of the people and the good Italian and Greek food for half the price or the barber shop or the barren cultural museum across the street. It is the feeling of being in the Balkans, and meeting Kosovars and Macedonians who have descended to Albanian riviera. Although the roads are full of cars with license plates from Italy and Germany, one quickly realizes those are the locals who migrated for a better life. There are few tourists who want to explore the last frontier in Europe.

Albanian goodies on the beach, Xsamil.

On the way to Lekursi Castle in Saranda shows
Albania in a nutshell: mushrooms and Mercedes.
In fact, Albania appears a much more multicultural country than one would think. There are Greek villages close to the border with Greece clearly identified with their Greek signs as such. Although its population is half Muslim, half Christian, the latter are of various dominations. However, given its totalitarian past, religion is hardly visible as evinced by the few places of worship. In Saranda, I could see one mosque, one church and one synagogue. In fact, on the road to Durres, over 200km, I specificially counted the number of mosques I saw. It was only 11. Religion was so supressed, in 1992 when communism fell, ten thousand people occupied the Ethem Bey mosque in Tirana and demanded that it be opened for worship. The mosque, built in 18th century by the Ottomans is today the symbol of religious freedom in Albania. It has really interesting murals, atypically Muslim art.

Blue Eye, Albania.

View from Skanderbeg Square
in Tirana with the Opera House in the back.

If you want to see Saranda to the full extent, a 2-3 days stay is a must. So is a car. You can spend a day on the long stretch of Xsamili beach but beware that if on a weekend, it may be very crowded. Apparently the most virgin beaches of Europe are around Lukova -28 km from Saranda- with some places only accessible by sea but we did not have time to do that. A visit to the Blue Eye -a natural deep spring water that looks like an eye- is a must. At sunset, go up the Lekursi Castle and enjoy the view with a beer and possibly dinner. If you have time you should also visit the ancient city of Butrint and Gjirokaster (50 km from Saranda) which is a small Ottoman village with a beautiful castle on top. We just saw it from a distance on our way to Tirana.

Ethem Bey mosque in Tirana, Albania.

The interior of the Ethem Bey mosque has these interesting murals
given the representation ban in Islam.
As soon as you go out of Saranda, one is surrounded by a feeling of wilderness. Albania is empty and virgin territory ready to be explored by nature lovers and nothing attests to that than the road to Tirana. The road is curvy, dotted at times with mushrooms, the bunkers that were built by Enver Hoxha. Once in Tirana, visit the Skanderberg Square and especially the Ethem Bey mosque and take a walk around the artificial lake. You'd be surprised by the number of people jogging, walking and chatting. And on the way back, make sure you stroll and go into one of the club/bars in Blloku. It's where the young and the beautiful party at night. Over all, my three days in Albania gave me only a flavor of the country and made me think again how much we don't know our neighbors or the Balkans.

Sunset at the Tirana park's artificial lake, Albania.