I am watching the sun set over the water, sitting on the pebble beach across the road from our small hotel, drinking Albanian wine from a cardboard coffee cup. It’s been a three-beach day, with great seafood and warm, clean water. My son had suggested going for a hike, now that the day was cooling off, but 100 degree temps and crazy traffic did me in. Just heading back to our room and sitting on the beach was the perfect end to a perfect day.
We drove through Lloghara Pass today- something that the guide books suggest as a “must do”. The scenery was breathtaking, with mountains to our left and a steep drop to the Ionian Sea to our right. From a distance, the water is an unusual color – a mixture of turquoise and royal blue. We passed through small towns, barely passable roads for two cars, swerving to miss the occasional car parked at an odd spot. The switchbacks through the pass were endless and nerve wracking. The country side seems remote and uninhabited, except for the random donkey on the side of the road or herd of goats blocking traffic. We eventually arrive at a town and a beach- usually blaring party music, endless umbrellas, too many people looking to cool off from the heat. Welcome to Albania!
This is a country where being a tourist is a big effort. We have a rental car the agency said was nearly new, and its fender is damaged, scraped up and dented no doubt from the uneven roads and ditches. The main highway is fine, but secondary roads are a challenge. Damaging the axel would not be hard. Wifi is not consistent, and either is electricity. The last two nights when we have been at dinner at two different towns, the restaurant lost power. We lost power at the hotel three times last night before we went to bed. I am grateful there is air conditioning.
Evidence of the former communist regime is everywhere- 160,000 plus bunkers built by their dictator at great cost of money and human life. We stop at a family winery for a wine tasting outside of Berat, and the young daughter gave us a tour. Her great grandfather had 1000 hectares of vines, until the communist government took it all, leaving him 1 hectare. The government destroyed all the confiscated vine acreage. Eventually, her grandfather started making wine again in secret from vines that had been salvaged, risking arrest. When the regime ended, her father and uncle travelled to Italy to learn wine-making from the best. Today, they own the best winery in Albania. Unfortunately, you will have to travel here to taste it because imports into the US are more difficult now than ever.
Before flying to Albania from Athens, friends in Greece warned us that Albania was populated by criminals and thugs, and was very dangerous compared to Greece. Many Albanians immigrate to Greece for better jobs and a higher quality of life, and the Greeks don’t really like it. We have noticed an unusual number of Mercedes driving around(Russian mob money?) and most young men look like KGB-wannabees. However, we have been amazed at how nice and helpful people have been wherever we go. My husband left a bag of coins at the airport and realized it after leaving security- the bag was still there 10 minutes later. Anytime we have asked for help, directions, or for information, Albanians have gone out of their way to provide it. This is a country where life for the average person is a huge struggle- (the receptionist at the hotel works 18 hour days), where 20 years ago the illiteracy rate was almost 90%, where the average Albanian farmer still uses a horse drawn cart- but, there is honesty and kindness everywhere.
This has been the most challenging country for us to travel in, but I feel lucky to have seen it’s unspoiled beauty and simplicity. It is a good thing to travel somewhere that reminds you how fortunate it is to be born American.