By Dora Ohrenstein
Albania was not involved in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, though it received an influx of refugees from nearby countries at the time. But it had a very tough twentieth century under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who kept the country in total isolation for fully forty years, 1945 – 1985. During this time he befriended first Stalin, then Mao, before cutting off all outsiders and ruling the country as a very large prison. After his death democracy was voted in, but an inept and corrupt government ran the economy into the ground with a mad pyramid scheme. Instability continued until the present millenium.
The Albanian people I met were formal, direct, helpful and kind. They are a warm people who maintain a comfortable distance. For all the economic insecurities, I had the sense of people putting their lives together. I hope more international organizations, as well as interested individuals, are lured by the enormous potential here.
There is no doubt that Albania is on the cusp of major change. It is a place of stunning beauty, sweeping, dramatic mountain ranges, beautiful Ottoman towns, Roman ruins, and prime Adriatic coastline, a good portion of it undeveloped. Its people are cultured, generous and hospitable. Albania is an oyster coming out of its shell. The country’s economy and infrastructure are progressing slowly, with poor roads and inadequate trash disposal still major concerns. On the up side, I learned during one of my encounters, Greek, Italian and German banks are operating all over the country, and when money like that goes in, surely more will follow. Inevitably this will lead to investments and improvements. All this will whisk Albania into the 21st century in no time at all. Let me state most emphatically that now is really the time to visit, before all that occurs. The atmosphere is unlike anything we are used to in North American and Western Europe, with marvelous destinations full of history, not the least bit overrun, good people, good food, good music, and very affordable.
Transportation to Albania has been a headache since I began researching this trip. It seems that all lines halt at the border and one is left to fend for oneself to get into the country. The best advisors recommend getting as close as you can, then looking for a van or taxi to cross the border. This archaic situation is obviously a legacy of the Hoxha years; why it persists to this day is that other countries want to make it hard for Albanians to get in. Visa restrictions are high to most countries in the world, including neighbors, and can cost as much as $2000. There are large Albanian communities in Kosovar, Serbia, Croatia, Germany and southern Italy, and many Albanians living across North America and western Europe. For Albanians who want to travel today, however, getting out is a daunting and frustrating undertaking.
For a privileged American like me, getting to Albania from Dubrovnik requires crossing through the country of Montenegro to the town of Ulcint, very near the Albanian border. According to the Dubrovnik website there is a 10:30 bus to Ulcint, but it turns out no such bus is available. Instead I take a 9:30 bus from Dubrovnik to Herceg Novi, only an hour away, from whence I must make a connection to another bus headed to Ulcint. But our bus lingers a long time at the Montenegrin border, and we arrive 5 minutes too late to make that connection to the Ulcint bus. We must wait till noon to catch the next one. Now I need some Euros to pay for it, but there’s no bancomat (ATM) around. I’m told it’s a 5 minute walk, straight downhill, to the bancomat in the old town. With my little rolling luggage, it’s fine going down, but a real workout getting back up in stifling heat. My glimpse of the old town is disheartening, with women aggressively selling cheap garments in the main square. I climb aboard the next bus, and soon realize with dismay that it’s a local stopping literally every two minutes. The driver is a loud excitable fellow, and passengers are calling out jokes from the back of the bus. Music is blasting, but this Montenegrin pop, featuring baritonal Mediterranean wailing, is way better than the Croatian polka pop I’ve been hearing for days.
Soon we get to the breathtaking fjord, the Bay of Kotor, an immense landscape of high forbidding mountains encircling a timeless sea, with ancient towns dotting the shores and monasteries floating on lonely islands. It takes over an hour to work our way around the stunning bay and my eyes are glued to the windowpane, absorbing the vision through every pore. I had been thinking of stopping here in the town of Kotor, but this great circle we’re making in the bus is an experience all its own. After that, we endure several more hours of relentless heat in a slow bus packed full of sweaty Montenegrins, going from one little town to the next. On this bus are an Aussie girl living in London who’s a flutist, and two American girls who have been teaching English in Serbia. We are all headed for Ulcint and then points beyond and very glad for each others’ company. Six hours later we arrive in Ulcint at last, where I learn there’s no bus to Schodra in Albania till 6 a.m. the next morning.
Immediately on entering Albania we pass Roma (gypsies) living in terrible slums. We have arrived in Schodra, a funky communist era town, and soon get stuck in a traffic jam. My driver drops me at a circle where there’s a cash machine and a furgon (van) to Tirana leaving shortly. There are two young British lads on the bus, who are only passing through Albania on their way to Greece and a couple of other passengers. As we move along a steady stream of travelers gets on and off the van. The two-hour ride passes agricultural fields being worked by humans and animals, abundant watermelons for sale, and prolific small scale construction along the road for mile after mile. I see a new Albania taking shape that, to my western eyes, lacks any evident plan or structure. Small hotels sit in the middle of farm fields, with rusting car bodies next door. It’s just pitch your tent wherever you find a spot. Makes me realize how much I take for granted the beauty of the old European cities, and even parts of North America, like New York. But this is too judgmental! It’s only the beginning of a new era in Albania, and what I’m seeing is a much needed new economy developing.
At 9 pm we arrive in the sprawling city of Tirana. I walk to the only hotel I can see and check into a rather glum place, thankful for its amenities (a/c, internet) after this exhausting journey. I go outside briefly in search of water and beer, and back in my room consume both, along with two pieces of Turkish delight. They come from a box full that was a gift from Dina in Mostar, purchased in Blagaj and right now it tastes like manna from heaven. I’ve been travelling since 9:30 in the morning, began in a highly civilized city, passed through a small country, and have reached the capitol of Albania at last. I sleep like a log.