Albania: A Balkan country sheds its secret past

In a country where religion was once banned, they awake to the sounds of church bells and the Muslim call to prayer.

albania 311 (photo credit: (Carol Pucci/Seattle Times/MCT))
albania 311
(photo credit: (Carol Pucci/Seattle Times/MCT))
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 prayer.
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 America.
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 riverfront.
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 hospitality.
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 Western Europe.
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 coastline.
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 armchairs.
One night we joined a journalist friend at a restaurant called Shakesbeer owned by an Albanian chef who worked in London.
Walking along 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 talk.
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 him.
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 Italian village of Greci. The town was abandoned by the Greeks, then settled by Albanian soldiers in the 15th century as a reward for the help the Albanian war hero, Skanderbeg, gave Neapolitan kings in fighting insurgents. Many in Greci still speak an Albanian dialect, and everyone from there, including my family, has Albanian roots.
Away from Tirana, rugged mountains form the backdrop for Albania’s rural villages and seaside towns. We traveled on buses and shared vans, called furgons. Twolane roads cut through a countryside strewn with domeshaped concrete bunkers left over from the Hoxha years.
Locals steer travelers to the Greek and Roman ruins in the ancient city of Butrinti and the nearby beaches in the coastal town of Saranda across from the Greek island of Corfu. More memorable than any sites, though, were the experiences we had and the people we met while traveling in a country where tourists are few.
On one of our long bus rides, we sampled pace, the national breakfast dish made from parts of a sheep’s head. It was early morning on the Llogara Pass, the highest point on the southern coastline. The driver stopped at a mountain restaurant, and the waiters brought out bowls of what looked like a thick soup. It was pace, and despite our initial inhibitions, the soup was delicious.
In the town of Gjirokastra, we met Haxhi and Vita Kotoni, owners of the Kotoni House, the first private hotel to open after the communist government fell.
Using UNESCO funds, they renovated Haxhi’s 300-yearold family home as a B&B decorated with carved wooden ceilings and Vita’s embroidered pillows and woven rugs.
As Hoxha’s birthplace and Albania’s second “museum city,” Gjirokastra, like Berati, received special attention.
Built into a steep hillside below a castle and above a modern university town are Ottoman-era stone houses, some restored, others abandoned 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. Within a few blocks walk in the historic center were the remains of a 2nd-century Roman 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 preparing to leave on a ferry for Greece.
“I hope you come back in 10 years,” Fatmir told Theroux.
“You will find that the houses are better, the town is better, the port is better, the food is better and I am better.”
He was right. Slowly, slowly, Albania is changing.
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