Europe’s forgotten Mediterranean paradise: Albania at Christmas

Keeping in theme with our recent travels, Christmas 2019 led us back to the Balkans, though this time into the relative unknown of Albania. Sandwiched between Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Greece, Albania is rarely seen as an option for tourists seeking sun and the Mediterranean coast in the summer, and even less so for winter-sun at the other end of the year.

For us, we experienced a stark contrast to 2018, where we experienced temperatures as low as -18 in Estonia, and Zagreb and Ljubljana in heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures the year before, Albania was a welcoming 15 to 20 degrees in mid-December. Whilst warm for the region at this time, the Mediterranean climate meant that snow was unlikely at best – and the oranges still growing on land at the roadside, and the odd palm tree scattered around the cities, even in December, only confirmed that.

First impressions after arriving at the airport were that the country had really exceeded expectations with its Christmas decorations. A predominantly Muslim country, and one where religion was illegal under the communist rule of Enver Hoxha from 1944 until the fall of communism in the early 1990s, the amount of Christmas lights and decorations we saw on the drive into the centre alone was impressive.

The drive from the airport was surprisingly comfortable up until the chaos that is traffic in Tirana city centre. A country which only had widespread use of vehicles from the early 90s, traffic signs and road markings appear to be an advisory or suggestive at best. Four days wasn’t long enough to even begin to work out how there wasn’t a dozen crashes at each change of lights and crossing, but it seems to work for them.

Contrary to whatever preconceptions we may have had of Albania, the streets and countryside are incredibly clean, and on any given evening we saw dozens of municipal workers picking litter, emptying bins and power washing and leaf blowing the paths and roads. For a country that has been historically poor at waste management, and with bespoke challenges such tap water being undrinkable and therefore all water being from bottles, it’s impressive how on the surface at least, it creates such a welcoming platform for visitors. Some of this is likely from Albania’s remarkably obvious lack of big-businesses. In our time there, the only consumer store we recognised from the UK was Spar/Interspar. Albania famously having the only capital city in Europe without a McDonald’s.

Currency: Albania’s currency is the Lek. Following the various challenges that communism, and it’s collapse, caused the country, including pyramid schemes and civil war, the Lek has changed value a lot of the years. Credit cards are not necessarily accepted in the capital, and much less so in rural Albania and markets, and Euros also appear to be fine for larger payments, such as for tours, but not in shops and stalls. With Lek not purchasable in the UK, we found ourselves withdrawing 36,000 Lek at the airport (around £300 as of December 2019).

Whilst Albania is commonly cited as the poorest country in Europe, at first sight this is not as evident as it has been in other Balkan countries. From our trip around Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular, there appeared to be less homeless and street begging and busking. Though in the busy areas such as the Christmas market in Tirana, it was still there. Also, despite suffering a major earthquake two weeks before we arrived which saw over 50 lose their lives, Albania lacks the obvious damage and suffering to its buildings and streets that we saw in the likes of Bosnia, where the remanence of the war was still very much on show.

 

Tirana…

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Following the drive through the Christmas lights to our hotel right in the city centre. An old communist-style tower block with a snake’s-nest of wires above the front door, the room itself was beautiful and wouldn’t have looked out of place in any affluent European city.

Food in Albania isn’t hard to come by and prices are extremely low – as are those for beer, wine and cigarettes. Coffee meanwhile is everywhere, with Albania having the highest number of cafes per capita in the world. During our time in Tirana, we enjoyed the street cooked chicken kebabs and hotdogs, as well as seafood and regional favourite, cevapcici.

Tirana, for a city that a remarkable one third of the population of Albania calls home, is surprisingly compact. With the exception of those in the nearby mountains, all of Tirana’s main attractions are within walking distance of the centre – fortunate for those who don’t want to brave the erratic roads, or the will-it/won’t-it public transport network.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, both the National Museum and House of Leaves were closed during our time. We also chose not to visit Tirana Zoo following various news reports of animal welfare issues.

Our first visit in Tirana was to Pazari i Ri, ‘The New Bazaar’, a market selling everything from trinkets and souvenirs, to fruit and old passports. Surrounded by cafes, as is the way here, we sat down for coffee and cake and watched he world go by.

Venturing into the heart of Tirana is simple, the centre and focal point is Skanderbeg Square, a large open plaza which hosts the Christmas market, as well as Skanderbeg Statue, a monument to Albania’s national hero who led a rebellion against Ottoman rule in the 15th century. The Opera House, Friendship Monument, Kapllan Pasha’s Tomb and the impressive Clock Tower can also be found around the main square, with the tower in particular, covered in lights for Christmas.

The Christmas market itself is extremely impressive, and whilst not at capacity, surprisingly busy. With Christmas lights and the tree in the main square, there was a 2020 sign for New Year, and public buildings decorated to look like parcels around the perimeter of the square. The stalls themselves were predominantly food and drink, and fairground rides including a pirate ship, Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round, were lighting up and pumping sound and music around the square. Very different to what we have experienced elsewhere in Europe, but a much more social environment.

Leaving the very centre, we passed the Independence Monument, which was set away within the grounds of a park undergoing some form of construction work. This route led us towards the Tirana, or Enver Hoxha Pyramid and the adjacent Peace Bell make for an unusual sight. At time of our visit, the pyramid itself was fenced off, and has long been disused and fallen into disrepair, but makes for an extraordinary site. Opened in the late 80s as a monument to dictator Enver Hoxha after his death, the building suffered following the fall of communism in the early 1990s, and despite subsequent use as a NATO base during the Kosovo conflict in the late 90s, and proposals to demolish and refurbish since, it remains a large and slightly surreal monument to Albania’s recent past.

On the walk back towards the square, the old Tanners’ Bridge, an old Ottoman style bridge, synonymous with the Balkans, it now sits on a dried out piece of grass, with locals and tourists free to walk over it, should they prefer a cobbled path to the main footpath and road which now runs parallel. Further to this, we stopped by the Great Mosque of Tirana, where older men had gathered to meet in the park outside to play board games, and the Fortress of Justinian, now something of a small trail of shops and restaurants, within the old castle walls.

BunkArt 2 was our next destination. A bunker in the city centre, which houses a number of spaces underground, no exhibiting something of a history museum, as well as weapons, spying equipment, trinkets and artwork. The bunker is an incredible insight into how Albanians suffered under communist rule, how cut off the country became, alienating all Soviet Union, China and America, and the extent of suffering experienced in forced labour camps and prisons for those sentenced for being political opponents, or committing crimes such as practicing religion, or making seemingly innocuous comments, perceived as being against the state. Built under Enver Hoxha’s regime, BunkArt 2 was not finished or used for its intended purpose of protecting citizens from an attack by any of Albania’s many enemies of the time. It appears to be disputed just how many of these bunkers there are across the country, with numbers ranging from 250,000 to 750,000, but in a country of just 1.5 million people it is testament to the paranoid nature of the regime back only a few decades ago.

A pattern of speaking to people in Albania is that they are not ready to talk about most recent history, communist rule and issues that have affected Albania since 1991, and this museum is a fantastic insight into that time.

Just around the corner from BunkArt 2 is the elaborate and modern Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, the exterior of which is a fantastic testament to how modern design can fit in with historic architecture. As with most religious buildings in Albania, the new design is a replacement for those which were destroyed under Hoxha’s rule, when religion was made illegal, and Albania officially made the first atheist state in the world.

Requiring a short, but hectic taxi-ride or car journey, but well worth it, the Dajti Cable Car provides an impressive trip up Dajti mountain, for around £15 return per person. This is perhaps the first chance in Tirana to see the scale of Albania, and how it is not all hustle and bustle like the city centre. Views out towards both Montenegro in the north, and Greece in the south, with the Adriatic coast running across the horizon, and the urban sprawl of Tirana appearing so small in the distance, this is an essential journey for those who want to see everything in one picture. Also, at the top there are restaurants and bars, perfect for watching sunset on a summer evening, or avoiding the sudden drop in temperature in the winter, along with activities such as crazy golf, horse riding and target shooting.

 

Berat…

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Seen on the cover of the Brandt travel guide of Albania, Berat may be the most famous postcard picture associated with Albania (as seen on the cover of the Brandt travel guide we had been using during out visit) and has been a UNESCO Heritage Site since 20018. The ‘City of 1000 Windows’ has an old quarter by the bank of the river Osum, which all of the windows appear to face across making for an unusual site and picture.

We first stopped at Berat Castle, in an impressive courtyard of stone buildings which has survived, or been rebuild, following the many conquests of Albania over the years, including the Byzantines, Ottomans, Illyrians, Venetians, Serbian and Roman. The castle is in fantastic condition, and houses the UNESCO site, Kisha Shen Triadha, or the Holy Trinity Church, a Byzantine church from the 13th or 14th century. Still within the walls of the old castle is an ancient cathedral, now the National Iconographic Museum Onufri, has a number of relics and paintings on show, including incredible wood carvings and wool crafted goods. With a bit of walking, the ruins and remains of the castle grounds give a fantastic 360-degree panoramic view of Berat at the surrounding countryside, including looking down on both the old and new cities. As part of the winding maze of streets, there are items being crafted and sold, and a restaurant.

We had lunch with our guides before they navigated the winding cobbled streets around Berat to take us to the National Ethnographic Museum. Not dissimilar to those we have seen in Bosnia-Herzegovina previously, this museum was run by an incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable lady, who had been born in Berat castle and now worked as a guide. The building was less damaged by recent history, and was larger and arguably grander than those we had seen before, displaying items and handicraft from Albania’s history, in an old wooden house showing how families would have lived back then. Before heading down to the town, we stopped at the Saint Demetrius Orthodox Cathedral, where we lit candles and observed the frescos and architecture in the building, all whilst the vicar sang hymns which echoed beautifully around the empty church.

Parking by the Gorica Bridge, we walked over and along the banks taking in the view of the incredible Quarter of Gorica, the City of 1000 Windows. It is unusual to find such an urban site that is quite this beautiful and seem so full of history, yet still full of life and any true lacking modern influence. All-the-while, the presumably inaccessible St. Michael’s Church sits clinging to the rockface above the road and below one of the viewing points from the castle.

We finished our time in Berat with coffee on the main street, Bulevardi Republika, into Berat. It was here we witnessed one of the problems that tends to find us, or that we find, across the Balkans, as a stray dog made friends with us. We were told, and got the distinct impression, that the dogs are not a problem here, certainly not the extent that they are in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But none-the-less, it always raises concern as to how they are getting by. Walking back, we took in the smaller-scale, but beautiful decorated, Christmas market in the square in the centre of Berat, with a tree and buildings decorated on par with Tirana.

Tours: For our tours to both Berat and Kruja, we used the local travel company Inspire Me World Travel which we highly recommend for anyone wanting an all-inclusive and informative day trip out of Tirana to see all of what Albania has to offer, without the stress and inconvenience of car hire and acclimatising to the local rules of the road, or lack of them.

 

Kruja…

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Originally, our plans for our time in Albania had included a visit to Durres, but we opted against looking into this further after the earthquake two weeks prior. It seemed somewhat inappropriate to turn up with a camera and start taking pictures, if it was even possible to access the city by normal means, so instead we took a tour to Kruja.

The drive up to Kruja is simple, but slow. Traffic build up around Tirana is clearly problematic, and whilst locals seem to know how things work and what to expect, it would be highly recommended to be fully prepared before attempting a self-drive holiday around the heavily populated areas of the country.

We started off with a drive up to Kruja Mountain, which is home to an incredible view point, surpassing that of the Tirana cable car, in showing Albania, its countryside, cityscape, coastline and mountainous neighbours in one spot. As well as showing us our next stop down at what from where at least, looked like a remarkably small city. Also, up on the mountain side is the pilgrimage site, the Temple of Sari Salltiku. Interestingly, we had seen this site in a documentary by Monty Python’s Michael Palin, called New Europe, whereby a live sheep was sacrificed as part of a ceremony. A difficult part to watch, but the documentary as a whole is good viewing for those who want to see how much Albania, and other Balkan countries have changed, even since that was made around 15 years ago.

Next our highly skilled driver drove us down to the city of Kruja, and first stopped at the Old Bazaar. A traditional cobblestoned market, leading through stalls of just about everything non-perishable, from military paraphernalia and souvenirs, to hand-made wool slippers and rugs. Stopping for a coffee on the way back through, underneath our next stop, Kruja Castle, which had been overlooking us for our stay so far. Much like Berat, the castle grounds were expansive and encompassed a number of buildings, houses, statues and museums. Also here were the ruins of the original church and old clock tower, which had been heartbreakingly damaged by the recent earthquake with debris falling down into the road beneath. Impressively, or with a lack of focus on health and safety, the remainder of the buildings within the castle grounds remained open.

We visited the Ethnographic Museum, again, not dissimilar to the one in Berat, but with more focus on historic personal items such as clothing and household items, showing how locals would have lived in Albania’s past. Perhaps a more impressive building in the sense that it was incorporated as part of the castle grounds, unlike the one in Berat, the guide again was knowledgeable and extremely keen to share his obvious passion for history with visitors.

We sat down at the café next door for a traditional Albanian lunch, multiple courses of soup, local cuisine, and stew. This then led us on to our final stop, Skanderbeg Museum. Throughout our time in Albania (and Kosovo in 2018), Skanderbeg’s name was a constant, with statues, murals and mentions in every museum. Celebrating his leadership in Albania, and its neighbours, rebelling against the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, this multi-storey museum is a modern wonder of artefacts, paintings and recreations of his battle, and the acknowledgement on how his life has impacted and shaped modern-day Albania.

Albania is a remarkable place – clean, affordable and the people are hospitable and friendly. Easy to get to, a three-hour flight from London-Luton Airport runs every other day, all year round, and costs less than £100 per person return. However, navigating the country is much more challenging without a headstrong driver. That said, available tours often include lunch and drinks, and the extra element of discussing history and the surroundings, this is often likely the more cost-effective option anyway.

It should be on everybody’s must visit list but won’t be the perfect Christmas destination for everyone – focus is far more on food, drink and entertainment, than gifts, and snow is much less likely than in northern Europe. But then again if, like us, you are escaping the commercialism and drab weather of the UK, or similar, then this may be absolutely perfect.

By Tom McBeth

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