Albania: What I didn’t know I didn’t know

With Ireland, for the most part, enjoying a stellar reputation abroad, I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to see and hear the world reacting badly to your home country.

Alice Taylor wrote about this for Respublica,  an academic blog of the Institute of Communication Studies (ICS). Her piece – Albania: a country haunted by migration and reputation woes – tells of the frustration and anger felt by Albanians when they see themselves portrayed in the media as criminals and drug traffickers. And how this portrayal has reached the school playground.

This was our first time visiting the country that has been receiving more positive press lately, touted as the next new place for the tribe of digital nomads.

The visa is a residency permit that allows remote workers to live in the country for up to a year, with an option to request an extension for the second year. After the second year, they can extend it for five more years. After that, they can apply for permanent residency. It is ideal for those who have plans to settle in Albania permanently.

Jacob Mikanowski writes beautifully about the country for The Guardian. The New York Times bills it as the world’s ‘next affordable creative haven‘. Aljazeera features Albania in its Storytravelers series.

Albanian or ‘shqip’ has two dialects: Tosk (southern) and Geg (northern). Any attempt to speak the language will earn you major smiles. The Albanians I met delighted in hearing me mangle the words they were trying to teach me. I’m hopeless. I kept confusing thank you (faleminderit) with goodbye (mirupafshim).

The Albanians are descended from the Illyrians, an ancient Indo-European people who lived in central Europe and migrated south by the beginning of the Iron Age (see Illyria). The Gegs settled in the north and the Tosks in the south, along with Greek colonizers.

With the third-largest diaspora in the world (more than 30% of Albanians live abroad), young people are still leaving in their droves. Prime Minister Edi Rama, known as a pop-politican, was once a painter and a basketball player. He’s credited with reforming politics in the country since his election in 2013. While he says he can’t stop them from leaving, he envisions an Albania they would want to come home to.

Albanian-US relations go back to 1919, when US President Woodrow Wilson ‘advocated for an independent Albanian state at the Paris Peace Conference’. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1922 and today, US citizens can come live, visa-free, for one year. Albania might very well be the next destination of choice for Americans looking to cross the pond.

Bronze bust of Hilary Clinton with a red flowering bush in the background against a blue sky
In a small park in Saranda, Albania

Being of a superstitious nature myself, I was more than amused to see that there’s a superstitious streak running through the country. Teddy bears. Garlic. Dolls. Soft toys. These are hung on empty and lived-in houses to ward off evil spirits. That some of them looked downright evil wasn’t lost on me.

Collage of photos showing things hanging on houses to ward off evil spirits - 1 - a barbie doll with a skull for a head 2- a stuff sheep with a rope of garlic 3 - a stick doll wearing a white mask, a grey sweatshirt and grey shorts 4 - a chubby boy doll

I noticed lots of old Mercedes. Apparently, back in the day, Enver Hoxha, the PM, had a Mercedes 600 Pullman and driving a Merc became a status symbol of sorts.

During War II until 1991, luxury goods and imports were not allowed into the country. However, some government officials were allowed to own luxury cars, and many of them chose Mercedes-Benz as their preferred brand.

The old cars are solid and perfect for the rugged Albanian roads. The mechanics know how to fix them and there are plenty of spare parts available. They’re also a currency of sorts, a little like emigrants’ remittance. Many Albanians who worked abroad brought one back to sell. They’re everywhere. A little like the Morris Ambassador, in India.

A gold-coloured old mercedes parked in front of a Prima Kitchen shop

Like other countries in this part of the world, communism is part of living memory.

[Albania] achieved independence in 1912 and was admitted into the League of Nations in 1920. It was briefly a republic (1925–28), then became a monarchy under Zog I, whose initial alliance with Italy deteriorated into that country’s invasion of Albania in 1939. After the war a socialist government under Enver Hoxha was installed, and gradually Albania cut itself off from the nonsocialist international community and eventually from all other countries, including China, its last political ally. By 1990 economic hardship had fomented antigovernment demonstrations that led to the election of a noncommunist government in 1992 and the end of Albania’s international isolation.

On an academic level, I can appreciate how religion was banned for nearly 50 years but I hadn’t known that Albania was the first atheist country in the world. Hoxha, it seems, had a thing for burning churches.

In 1967, Hoxha tightened his grip on the country even further by banning all religion, declaring Albania the world’s first atheist state. During this time, churches and mosques were seized by the military and either destroyed or turned into cinemas or dance halls. Clergy members were stripped of their titles, shamed and in some cases incarcerated.

From this atheism has come a religious tolerance that Pope Francis praised in 2014. Today, while predominately Muslim, Islam and Christianity peacefully coexist.

As we drove around the southern part of the country, I couldn’t help but notice the bunkers. These are not like the ones I saw in Geesthacht; they’re smaller, more compact.

A mushroom-like concrete bunker with red graffiti that reads 23. Tubaki on a cliff overlooking the sea

While Hoxha was busy burning churches, he was also building bunkers, some 750 000 of them. For a mass invasion that never came.

The prototype for the bunkers was built in the 1950s, with the chief engineer assuring Hoxha that it would withstand a full assault from a tank. Hoxha decided to test it, with the engineer inside, and when he emerged unscathed from the attack mass production began.

What must it have been like living in the shadows of these sniper windows, and with Hoxha’s paranoia?

Some have been destroyed. Others have been turned into artists’ studios and even a youth hostel. The Bed and Bunker project is an interesting one. They cost about €800 to destroy, which is probably why so many are still standing.

The scenery is stunning. For a  small country, slightly smaller than the US state of Maryland [ 340 km (211 mi) N-S and 148 km (92 mi) E-W], it’s got a lot of mountains. Some 70% of the land is mountainous and the views are spectacular. The Prokletije Mountains run through Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania.

Rows of mandarin trees in a valley with a mountain in the background

A landscape with mountains clouded in the background, and smaller undulating hills in the foreground

While they give the country that wild west feel, the coastline of about 476 km (296 mi) adds an Amalfi note. And then there are the lakes.

View of lake framed with overhanging trees and sun-kissed mountains in the background

View from a cliff top looking down onto the Ionian Sea with a strip of white sand beach visible

A stoney beach fading into clear blue water starting with a pale turquoise and merging into a deep blue

This is the first in a series of posts on our recent trip, guided by We Love Saranda. Stay tuned for more as we explore the southern part of this fascinating country.



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2 Responses

  1. Nice introduction to Albania. Looking forward to going back and exploring more of the country. Or maybe just more time enjoying the seafood and Ionian beaches.

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2 Responses

  1. Nice introduction to Albania. Looking forward to going back and exploring more of the country. Or maybe just more time enjoying the seafood and Ionian beaches.

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