TIRANA, Feb 13 /ATA/ – SO rich in treasures and sensational sights, everyone has wanted a piece of Albania over the centuries, this is how the British daily “Express” portrays Albania.
Maisha Frost discovers a mysterious beauty coming out of the shadows and longing to welcome the world.
I got a few wary looks when I first said I wanted to explore Albania, a place so little known despite being on the doorstep.
Europe’s forgotten secret, a white strip bound by the Adriatic and within sight of Italy and Greece, is still sometimes regarded, I then realised, as being a bit on the dodgy side.
Yet those who have been there tell of an easy-going place, welcoming people and land stacked with natural and ancient treasures. All pretty astonishing however given its turbulent past of invasion, blood feuds and ferocious isolation.
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.
Ancient Greeks, then jewellery-loving Illyrians, the ancestors of many of today’s Albanians, were followed by Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans who all seized, settled and surrendered here in a relentless game of thrones.
But after World War Two Albania, a country on the edge both physically and culturally, came under the iron grip of Communist despot Enver Hoxha and slipped from sight into ruin.
Raw traces of those brutal years remain, most dramatically in the shape of concrete nuclear bunkers, mushroom-like humps that still pock mark landscape everywhere, the product of a state in such Cold War fear of a US attack, it went to ground literally.
Of the 700,000 that were dug some 175,000 that were too difficult to remove remain, now extraordinary icons often repurposed as crop stores.
Today’s democratic Albania is transforming fast in other ways: the power blackouts and potholes are in retreat and the young as stylish as their European counterparts.
Few too would have predicted the land’s dividend from a failed state that never saw through its plans for collective farms.
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, with lots for the locals to shout about.
TIRANA – Capital of many colours
The capital Tirana is lively and safe, but with an understated, surreal side that often leaves visitors wondering what to make of it.
Part Mediterranean town, 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.
Large signs at the airport announce super-fast 4G+ broadband is universally available and were enviably true I found.
A slender statue of the nun Mother Teresa, the country’s famous daughter although she barely lived here, points the way into the centre where it’s soon obvious 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, weather-beaten talismans believed to ward off evil.
For good reason perhaps Tirana’s citizens seem to have a Pythonesque talent for looking 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 main squares of St Teresa and Skanderbeg, the latter named after the nation’s medieval defender, sword-swinging, wild-eyed sort invariably depicted perched astride a rearing horse.
My luxury nook was the central Hotel Kotoni, a former government ministry turned boutique bolt-hole. A gleaming cream and gold marble staircase led to my spacious bedroom, 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 offers and wedding wear. Albania’s happy couples hire not buy as ceremonies last for days and require several outfits
But in the recently restored decorative Ottoman bazaar district change is happening.
Here in the covered marketplace stalls of 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 too.
Behind Tirana’s modern art gallery, with its collection of bold paintings featuring workers’ heroic efforts in factories now abandoned, I came across huge statues of Lenin and Stalin lying humbled, crumbling among the weeds.
The message that all things must pass is evident too nearby where there is the extraordinary sight of local children tobogganing wildly down the sloping façade of The Pyramid, a grand 1980s’ construct designed by the Hoxha family as a prestigious memorial and trade centre.
Today it stands stripped of its marble and status as debate rages about its future.
How the country is confronting its past can also be seen with the newly opened Bunk’Art 2 and The House of Leaves
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 war time and Communist eras are recreated with astonishing memorabilia like household brooms impregnated with spying equipment, stories and photos of the disappeared (estimated to be over 50,000) and walls scrawled with lists of the interrogation methods used.
The equivalent of East Germany’s Stasi secret police headquarters, The House of Leaves museum was once home to the Gestapo and then Albania’s National Intelligence service, the notorious House of Spies. The Leaves reference has a sinister double meaning – both things hidden in woods and the books and files kept on people.
Nothing makes contemporary Tirana’s emergence from that darkness more apparent though than seeing its chic café culture blossom at aperitif time.
Going out is low cost here and I sipped a couple of pils (£1.50 each) from the Tirana brewery at trendy Capricco café, 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 puree (www.otium-restaurant.com, £30 for four courses).
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 live a charmed life in affluent seclusion.
Now it’s party central with bars like Dada? and the Lizard Club offering cocktails for under £5 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.
Through a great stone archway lies a long bazaar, its low, long-eaved timbered houses and busy cobbled alleyways a lot like an episode from the TV medieval fantasy.
Beyond is the tower and castle, now a museum full of classical sculptures and homages to Skanderbeg who fought the Ottomans and reunited Albania for a while.
In true Thrones fashion though it fell again and Kruja became a stronghold of Bektashism, a peaceable, mystical Sufi order of Islam and Albania’s fourth religion.
Families still live in the citadel, and its decorative teqe (shrine) and olive garden offered cool repose before I wound my way past bronze feathered chickens, stone slabs sprouting emerald green ferns and took the chance, perhaps the only real one in Albania to shop for souvenirs.
Selling is a laid-back business in this bazaar strung with racks of brightly coloured handwoven carpets (qilimes), slippers and scarves, must-buys for me though were a bunker-shaped pen holder (£3) 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 by 16th century master Onufri, famous for the luscious ruby coloured paint he used.
My amble took me to the 18th century traditional Ottoman home that is now the city’s Ethnographic Museum.
Behind its covered verandahs I got a glimpse of what contained, 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 spent the night in the elegant 17th century Hotel Muzaka, its brass chandeliers and honey-scented polished wood walls sending a soft glow through the riverside mansion where my evening passed under the stars in its courtyard sipping local wine.
The finest of those I found next day in the Cobo winery (www.cobowineryonline.com), a family-run concern whose vine story with native grape varieties started in 1900 but was ended by the Communists who forbid private enterprises.
The memories were not so easily obliterated though and after the regime collapsed Cobo rose again with a triumphant replanting.
Now it produces 100,000 bottles a year and beneath walnut trees, which also make the house raki, my tasting adventure took in a velvety red Kashmer, violet-tinted Shesh i Zi, from the Albanian grape said to be the father of Cabernet, and E Bardha e Beratit a floral, full-bodied white from the Puls grape found only in the region.
My last meal in the upper town in Berat was at Desaret (http://rezidencadesaret.com, £25 for three courses).
As I congratulated the chefs on the flavours of the stuffed aubergines and peppers and the quality of the local house Merlot, they explained they were Greeks who had been drawn to work to Berat because of the produce.
“In Greece now there is pressure to grow more, but tomatoes from polytunnels do not taste the same, Albania is the place for taste now,” one declared.
Wilderness walks and ancient ways
Wild nature is never far away in Albania and as I followed herders’ trails for a morning’s ramble in the sweet air high in the hills above Berat I was surrounded by slopes thick with poppies, campion, delicate blue lilies and wild orchids peeping among the tall grasses.
Just as spectacular were the butterflies and a moth whose wings etched in brilliant black and white would have put a pop art painting in the shade.
Tighter regulations are trying to put a stop to the wild orchid and gentian root trade that is threatening Albania’s rich bio-diversity, but while bans on cutting plants at the root exist, there are few rules to stop other countries importing them.
The crowds have not caught up yet either with the country’s archaeological sites, rated among the best in Europe.
Layers of history are densely packed in Durres, the port city and transit point for the ancient Via Egnatia route to the west of Tirana.
Apartments clad in polkadot printed panels line the coast road, and a housing estate teeters on the edge of the part excavated, eliptical-shaped Roman amphitheatre.
Although this does not have the manicured magnificence of Rome’s Colosseum, the stark suburban setting and details like the pens for lions and the steps deliberately made uneven for crowd control made me more aware somehow of history’s relentless tide.
Different again is pastoral Apollonia, a remote Pompeii-without-the-people hilltop site dating from 588 BC that was once a Greek city state served by slaves and then a Roman cultural centre.
At the entrance a Byzantine monastery’s stone walled galleries are dripping with classic bronzes, busts, vases and coins and across the cobbles gargoyles erupt from a 13th century frescoed church.
As I wandered deeper among its towering ancient pillars and olive groves, red rump swallows and bee eaters flitted by and I was suddenly in a moment only Albania could deliver.
In the distance rose the outlines of a mosque’s minaret and the hump of a bunker, then an unseen church bell began to toll …
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