Home Important Express: Albania, Europe’s forgotten Balkan beauty is a new hot spot for 2018

Express: Albania, Europe’s forgotten Balkan beauty is a new hot spot for 2018

15 min read

TIRANA, January 29 /ATA/ – Ancient Greeks, jewellery loving Illyrians – the ancestors of many of today’s Albanians – followed by Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans, all wanted a piece of Albania. And who can blame them? Within sight of Italy and Greece, it is an easy-going place with welcoming people and a land stacked with natural and ancient treasures.

True, its beach resorts lack the luxury Mediterranean touch. But this is a tolerant Balkan beauty of a different cast where fiery red Orthodox icons and swirling Islamic mosaics grace holy places side by side, and limestone ridges add a luminous dimension to hilltop citadels and wildflower meadows.

But following the Second World War Albania, a country on the edge both physically and culturally, came under the iron grip of Communist rule.

Raw traces of those brutal years remain, most dramatically in the shape of concrete nuclear bunkers, mushroom-like humps that mark the landscape.

Of the 700,000 that were dug some 175,000 which were difficult to remove remain, now extraordinary icons often repurposed as crop stores.

Albania’s small, family-run farms stayed largely pesticide-free and its wildernesses untouched. Today that means organic havens for produce and wildlife, a place for taste-delighting foodies and ramblers.

The capital Tirana is lively and safe and rather surreal. Part Mediterranean, part Soviet relic its rainbow-coloured apartment blocks, painted on the orders of a former mayor to bring some cheer, are more faded pastel these days.

Albania rocks a great flag, a striking scarlet standard dominated by a double-headed black eagle, said to symbolise bravery and valour. Images of it pop up on buildings everywhere, sometimes competing with the teddy bears that also dangle outside homes, talismans believed to ward off evil.

For good reason perhaps, Tirana’s citizens look on the bright side of life.

Ask them about Albania’s reputation as a gangster factory and they promise, only half-joking: “There’s no trouble here, we’ve exported all the criminals.”

Italian Modernist designs were the 1920s blueprint for today’s Tirana where tree-lined avenues connect the white, Futurist-style squares of Mother Teresa and Skanderbeg – the latter named after the nation’s medieval defender, a sword-swinging, wild-eyed sort invariably depicted perched astride a rearing horse.

My luxury nook was the central Hotel Kotoni (hotelkotoni.com), a former government ministry. A gleaming cream and gold marble staircase led to my spacious room that came with all the mod cons and a view of the presidency complex.

The city’s cultural highlights include a triumphalist history mural guarding the entrance to the classical, artefact-packed national museum and the pretty 18th-century Et’hem Bey mosque’s minaret and rare floral mosaics.

Shopping, however, is a non-starter here as goods are run-of-the-mill imports and high street windows are mostly full of teeth-whitening kits and wedding wear. In the covered marketplace stalls green plums are piled high next to bunches of iron wort, the herb used to make Albanians’ favourite medicinal mountain tea, and racks of artisan raki spirit, distilled not just from grapes, but quinces, plums and mulberries.

Behind Tirana’s modern art gallery I came across huge statues of Lenin and Stalin lying humbled, crumbling among the weeds. How the country is confronting its past can also be seen with the newly opened Bunk’Art 2 (bunkart.al) and The House of Leaves (visit-tirana.com).

The former, a nuclear shelter in the centre built for government officials, has been turned into a 40-room underground museum that makes for a heart-rending but compelling visit.

In the chambers and tunnels, scenes from the wartime and Communist eras are recreated with astonishing memorabilia such as household brooms impregnated with spying equipment, stories and photos of the disappeared (estimated to be more than 50,000) and walls scrawled with lists of the interrogation methods used. Nothing makes contemporary Tirana’s emergence from that darkness more apparent though than seeing its chic café culture blossom at aperitif time.

I enjoyed a Pils from the Tirana brewery at trendy Capriccio bar before slipping into intimate eaterie Otium – renowned for giving traditional Albanian cuisine a modern twist – for a dish of grilled sea food laced with mounds of split-pea purée.

After dark the Bloc or Blloku is still the place to be, a leafy rectangle of villas and streets perfumed with jasmine and lime tree blossoms, where the Communist elite used to live a charmed life in affluent seclusion.

Now it’s party central, with bars such as Dada and the Lizard Club offering cocktails and live bands drawing such happy, friendly crowds I wished those tyrannical former residents who robbed the people of so much could hear the laughter.

Beyond the city, en route to the medieval citadel of Kruja, vacant buildings stand by the highway, some half-built or decaying shells, some new finished but desolate and often for sale.

Just as prevalent are the deserted petrol stations and car washes, a handful in the space of a few yards. In the fields workers scythe the crops and families travel by horse and cart, indifferent to the black BMWs that whoosh past.

Just after a steep bend the scenery changes dramatically and for a moment I thought I had time-travelled to Game Of Thrones land as Kruja’s fortress ramparts reared above.

Through a great stone archway lies a bazaar with low, long-eaved timbered houses and busy cobbled alleyways. Beyond is the tower and castle, now a museum full of sculptures and homages to Skanderbeg who fought the Ottomans and for a while reunited Albania.

Families still live in the citadel, and its decorative teqe (shrine) and olive garden offered cool repose before I wound my way past chickens and stone slabs sprouting emerald ferns and took the chance, perhaps the only real one here, to shop for souvenirs. Selling is a laid-back business in this bazaar strung with racks of brightly coloured handwoven carpets (qilims), slippers and scarves.

Must-buys for me though were a bunker-shaped pen holder and a tambourine. South of Tirana a great gorge splits the mountains and you come to Unesco world heritage site and Albania’s poster girl Berat.
Dating back to the 4th century BC, the city’s seven-arch Gorica bridge, a favourite Ottoman masterpiece, spans the Osum river and tiers of white gabled houses climb steep cliffs to its citadel. There towering walls form a hilltop cradle for ancient mosques and eight medieval churches, one housing a stunning collection of icons.

My amble took me to the 18th-century traditional Ottoman home that is now the city’s Ethnographic Museum. Behind its covered verandas I got a glimpse of what communal life was like until just a few decades ago as men pressed olives and the women wove cloth and waited on them.

The sense of being in a parallel Ottoman reality stayed with me too as I spent the night in the elegant 17thcentury Hotel Muzaka (hotel-muzaka.com), its brass chandeliers and honey-scented polished wood walls sending a soft glow through the riverside mansion.

I passed my evening under the stars in its courtyard sipping local wine. And the finest of those I found next day in the Çobo Winery (cobowineryonline.com), a family-run concern whose vine story with native grape varieties started in 1900 but was ended by the Communists who forbade private enterprises.

Yet the memories were not so easily obliterated. Now it produces 100,000 bottles a year. As I congratulated the chefs at Desaret restaurant in Berat on the flavours of the stuffed aubergines and the quality of the local house merlot, they explained they were Greeks drawn to Berat because of the produce.

“In Greece there is pressure to grow more but tomatoes from poly-tunnels do not taste the same, Albania is the place for taste now,” one declared.

/m.b/ /G.S/ a.jor.

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