I knew Albania was going to be a special place when we got off the boat. There was a group of school children on the wharf singing! I looked around to see who they were singing to because we had not had this occasion at any other port. Then they reached out their hands and said hello. The children had been waiting for us………they welcomed us to Albania and it was this first glimpse that set the tone for the rest of our stay here. My first impression of Albania: The people of Albania want us here.
Today, we are going from Durrës, where the port is, on a two hour, ( one-way) drive to Berat, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. We are promised to see 1000 windows and Albania’s best preserved architecture from the Ottoman period. As we climbed onboard our bus the first thing we noticed was the age of the bus. Not quite as up to date, but spotlessly clean with a faint lingering cigarette aroma. Then we met our guide for the day, who introduced himself and instructed us to get our questions ready, any questions, as it was going to be a long drive and he would like to answer any questions we had. The first question someone had was, “how big is the Muslim population here?” And that started our day!
Durrës is the second largest city with 111,000 people. As we drove by the large neighborhoods along the shore, it was a-buzz with new building. New sidewalks were being poured, cranes were constructing tall buildings. The city was a hive of activity.
As we approached the roundabout to get off the shore line road and gain access to the two-lane highway, we came upon a local bus that had broke down on the side of the highway. Our bus driver pulled up even to the other bus, opened the door and asked what was the problem….. Our guide interpreted everything that was going on. Our bus driver then left our bus and went to the other bus with some tools. The two buses blocked the road to cars coming towards us and behind us. All the cars were stacked up in both directions. After twenty minutes and the satisfaction that the other bus could now continue, we continued too. There was not any horn blowing or any angry outbursts from any of the blocked cars. The guide continued to answer our questions, as if nothing was out of order. My second observation of Albania: The Albanians HELP each other and are RESPECTFUL of each other.
It didn’t take long for the city to pass away and we found ourselves in big open spaces, except for the hundreds of “mushrooms” and “holes” as our tour guide referred to them. These were bunkers and pill boxes all along the road, left over from the Soviet era. They were scattered everywhere.
As we ride along let me share the history of Albania with you…….a short run down. As with many of these countries they have had a turbulent and colorful past. There was the Greek, Roman, and Italian influence, of course, as this country was in the path of sea faring men on their way from one spot to the other.
After WWI the Muslim clerics took over the country, although there was a seven year struggle between the Christians and the Muslims. Following that period Albania signed a treaty with the Italians and by 1939 the Italians were in control, followed by the Germans, who were defeated by the Russians. Mind you during ALL this time there was infighting and unrest between the peasants, who were from many ethnic backgrounds and had lived in Albania for centuries, and any newcomers who wanted to make Albania their new home. In 1946, Enver Hoxha, the Russian puppet dictator, was elected the leader of Albania and established forty years of Soviet control and isolation from the rest of the world. Religious freedoms and practices were severely curtailed during the Communist era with all worship outlawed. Also, large farming communities and property, including mosques and monasteries owned by religious groups were nationalized. By 1967, Hoxha claimed that Albania was the first atheist state and all remaining churches that had been spared previously, were converted into cultural centers for young people. The law also banned all fascist, religious warmongering and anti-socialist activity. Preaching any religion carried a three to ten-year prison sentence.
Following the Revolution in 1989, it was not until 1991, that the first multi-partied elections took place. Even then another communist won, but the 1992 general elections were led by the Democratic Party. During this time economic and financial resources were supposedly being used by the new government to build up the country’s crumbling infrastructure. Large investment firms operating under the newly elected government encouraged the people to sell everything, including their homes and cattle for cash to deposit in financial endeavors, that turned out to be Ponzi pyramid schemes. By 1997, protests turned violent, but soon after the Police and Republican Guard deserted, the gangs and militias took over all the armories. This led to a crisis and a wave of evacuees. One out of three Albanians now worked in another country to send money back to their families.
We asked about the large oil drums that were located on the tops of the homes. Albania, which had the freshest, cleanest water in the world, now was having to collect rain water in these drums, because the pipes that carries the water were now rusted beyond repair, much like everything else in Albania. The Russians had come in, taken everything of any worth and then left the country in a state of rubble.
In April 1997, Operation Alba, a UN peacekeeping force, entered the country with two goals; to evacuate refugees and secure the ground for international organizations to come to their aid. The newly established democratic country became a member of NATO and joined in a partnership peace program. Albania applied to join the EU in 2009 and was a candidate for admission in 2014, after two previous rejections. In 2017, it was declared that the elections in Albania must be free and fair to admit the country into the EU. There have been numerous reforms focusing on modernizing the economy and decreasing the state run institutions, especially the law enforcement of the country. The two areas that the population did not want to give up were the free medical care and the free schooling. Today, since anyone can run for office, there is a multi-bodied group running the country. This has given everyone a voice, but it is hard to reach a consensus. Albania has decided to reduce the number of people in their parliament to achieve a more cohesive and timely progression. So, that’s where the country is today, still trying to shed their forty years of communism, now with frantic growth and greater mobility and an expanding economy. The Albanians are working very hard to rebuild roads and bridges. They are working in a global economy and encouraging people to once again visit their country. Families are opening up their small businesses to the world. Tourism, once again, is one of the main efforts in this beautiful country.
Along the road there are many hilltop churches…………..
As we approach Berat we see that it is perched on a steep hill, with the old fortress anchored at the top.
The Gorica Bridge over the Osum River was built in 1780 and re-built in the 1920’s, but looks like it has been modernized recently. It is a walking bridge between what was once the Christian-only side of the city with the Greeks and Turks on the other. Legend says that the two mountains near the river were originally giants, Tomorr and Shpirig. They fought over a woman and killed each other. She was so distraught that she drowned in her tears, making the Osum River.
Mount Shpirig is in the background.
The hazy brown mountains farther away are the Tomorr Mountains. The hillsides are covered in pine forests, trees and grasses, which makes Albania’s natural resources another boost to its economy. Due to Albania’s remoteness, there is also a wide variety of animals, which are close to extinction in other parts of the world.
Berat became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 due to its unique style of architecture influenced by several civilizations, that have coexisted for centuries here. Beret is translated two ways, one meaning “Town of a Thousand Windows” for the many windows of the decorated houses overlooking the town and “One Over Another Windows.” It is also known as “City of a Thousand Steps.” All translations are accurate. The old city center is divided into three parts; castle hill, the bottom of castle hill, and the Gorica on the left bank of the river. Today we will explore the bottom the hill and in future posts, the castle and other spots we toured in Albania.
The newer shops are on the street level. There are many cafes here and we saw mostly men enjoying their cups of coffee. Albania is ranked first with the most coffee houses per capita in the world. We did notice only men at the outdoor cafes………….and in the park.
We next explored the old city at the bottom, and walked through a school yard on our way to a hotel. These next pictures are that jaunt.
Along the route there are pieces of former historical structures.
and a slight incline through the neighborhood.
and a very narrow main street…………with a bazillion wires criss-crossing each other.
This photo is looking down at the schoolyard. It looks like a Greek center of learning may have been the original site.
This is one of my favorite photos of Main Street………..
Looking up you can see one of the twenty churches that are in Berat.
We also enjoyed walking through their new park and seeing the new part of Berat. Lots of statues in the old city, but they all honor Albanians now and not communists.
The park was full of men just enjoying the day!
Here are some of the new outdoor booths set up to sell Albanian souvenirs….
Remember this photo from above, the Mountain of Tomorr? In 1967, the dictator, Enver Hoxha declared Berat, “The Museum City,” and had his name placed on the mountain in rocks, as a memorial to himself. When the Russians left the people of Berat went to the mountain and rearranged the rocks. Now it reads “NEVER.” As in, they NEVER AGAIN want Communism. The transition from a socialist planned economy to a capitalist mixed economy in Albania has been largely successful and the people are moving on…….
PS also the guide explained that his mother is Christian Orthodox and his father a Muslim. However, he has practiced both those faiths and also Seventh Day Adventist. He also served in the military. Albanians are required to attend school up to the age of sixteen and are required to learn Albanian with most students choosing English as their second language. All students must learn two languages.
Next, we are going to visit a Berat Hotel, that is advertised on Trip Advisor! What will that be like? Then we’ll go up the hill to the fortress and the castle and eat an Albanian meal! I’ll see you there!