BERATI, Albania – Valter Mio, 22, was just a toddler when his family opened a
four-table restaurant inside his grandfather’s house in the mountain town of
Berati in southern Albania.
What began as one of the first private
businesses to open in 1993, after the fall of communism, is now the Hotel
Mangalemi, a boutique inn, surrounded by pine forests and whitewashed villas
wedged into terraced hillsides.
In a stone house where an Ottoman king
once slept, guests sip cocktails on a rooftop deck and eat homemade sausages and
desserts of honey and walnuts.
In a country where religion was once
banned, they awake to the sounds of church bells and the Muslim call to
Valter smiled and patted his stomach when I complimented the
roast chicken and stuffed peppers his mother had cooked the night before. As
satisfying as the meal was the bill, $17 for two.
If Berati were a town
in Greece or Italy, it would be filled with tourists roaming its 13th-century
castle, and peering into its ancient mosques and Byzantine churches. Berati was
designated a ‘museum city’ by the government in the 1960s, and its historical
architecture was preserved.
But this was Albania, and my husband, Tom,
and I were among just a few foreigners.
Isolated from the rest of Europe
and most of the world for nearly 50 years by its dictator, Enver Hoxha, Albania,
Valter reminded us, was a country where 20 years ago, “even the idea of owning a
private hotel or restaurant was not allowed.” The borders were sealed. Private
cars and phones were banned. What little learned Albanians knew about the
outside, they gleaned from patching into Italian TV or Voice of
Like politics, a free press and religion, tourism in Albania,
said Valter, is evolving, “slowly, slowly.” Outside on the Berati streets,
sidewalk vendors offered roasted sunflower seeds in paper cones and sour plums
the size of cherry tomatoes as we joined in the ritual evening stroll along the
Inside the castle walls, where families still live in stone
houses tucked along cobbled streets too narrow for cars, a woman peered out of
her doorway and motioned us inside.
Over tiny cups of coffee, we sat in
her living room and chatted a while, using a few Albanian words and some
Italian. Then she went behind a chair and pulled out a plastic water bottle
filled with raki, a clear alcohol Albanians offer as a gesture of
As memories of the Bosnian war and ethnic conflicts of the
early 1990s fade, the Balkan countries of Croatia and Montenegro in the former
Yugoslavia are drawing travelers looking for less expensive alternatives to
Like its neighbors, Albania, a country slightly smaller
than the state of Maryland, has historic towns with architecture evoking 500
years of rule by the Ottoman Turks; archaeological sites with Greek and Roman
ruins; mountains and seaside resorts along a long stretch of Mediterranean
With its leftover communist-style buildings and halffinished
construction projects, the capital of Tirana is hardly Paris or London. But no
longer is it the city of garbage-strewn streets and beggars that travel writer
Paul Theroux described in his 1995 book The Pillars of Hercules. In the Blloku
neighborhood, villas once reserved for the communist-party elite house smart
cafes where Tiranians sip cocktails on outdoor patios furnished with sofas and
One night we joined a journalist friend at a restaurant called
Shakesbeer owned by an Albanian chef who worked in London.
a wide boulevard built before World War II by Italian invaders for military
parades, we passed the former government-owned Hotel Dajti, now closed, and the
white marble pyramid built as a mausoleum for Hoxha.
A bronze plaque
marks a street named Presidenti George W. Bush in honor of his visit in 2007,
remembered for the cheering crowds that greeted him (Bush was a supporter of
neighboring Kosovo’s independence) and his watch that was either lost or stolen
in the crush.
“Albanians love Americans and America,” our friend
explained. As it was in Berati, people were friendly and anxious to
A man sitting across from us at a pizza restaurant our first day in
town told us that he spent time working in the US during the war in Kosovo, and
earned enough money to pay for his wedding.
When he got up to leave, he
offered to buy us an espresso. My husband, Tom, explained he doesn’t drink
coffee. “Beer then,” he said, and told the waitress our drinks were on
I had a personal reason for wanting to know more about Albania. We
found out only recently that my grandfather was born in the southern
village of Greci. The town was abandoned by the Greeks, then settled by
soldiers in the 15th century as a reward for the help the Albanian war
Skanderbeg, gave Neapolitan kings in fighting insurgents. Many in Greci
speak an Albanian dialect, and everyone from there, including my family,
Away from Tirana, rugged mountains form the backdrop for
Albania’s rural villages and seaside towns. We traveled on buses and
vans, called furgons. Twolane roads cut through a countryside strewn
domeshaped concrete bunkers left over from the Hoxha years.
travelers to the Greek and Roman ruins in the ancient city of Butrinti
nearby beaches in the coastal town of Saranda across from the Greek
Corfu. More memorable than any sites, though, were the experiences we
the people we met while traveling in a country where tourists are few.
one of our long bus rides, we sampled pace, the national breakfast dish
from parts of a sheep’s head. It was early morning on the Llogara Pass,
highest point on the southern coastline. The driver stopped at a
restaurant, and the waiters brought out bowls of what looked like a
It was pace, and despite our initial inhibitions, the soup was
In the town of Gjirokastra, we met Haxhi and Vita Kotoni,
owners of the Kotoni House, the first private hotel to open after the
Using UNESCO funds, they renovated Haxhi’s 300-yearold
family home as a B&B decorated with carved wooden ceilings and
embroidered pillows and woven rugs.
As Hoxha’s birthplace and Albania’s
second “museum city,” Gjirokastra, like Berati, received special
Built into a steep hillside below a castle and above a modern
university town are Ottoman-era stone houses, some restored, others
and awaiting money for repairs.
The port city of Durres on the Adriatic
Sea was our last stop before crossing to Italy on an overnight ferry.
few blocks walk in the historic center were the remains of a 2nd-century
amphitheater, a shop selling 30-cent scoops of Red Bull-flavored ice
cream and a
bar in the turret of a Venetian watch tower.
I thought about the
conversation Theroux had with a man named Fatmir as the writer was
leave on a ferry for Greece.
“I hope you come back in 10 years,” Fatmir
“You will find that the houses are better, the town is
better, the port is better, the food is better and I am better.”
right. Slowly, slowly, Albania is changing.
– The Seattle Times/MCT