After experiencing different parts of Albania for one week I have to say: This is the most underrated travel destination in Europe, in my opinion. The country has so much to offer: sand beaches and pebble beaches at the Adriatic Sea in the north and the Ionian Sea in the south, little villages as well as vibrant cities and mountains which can easily compete with the Alps.
One of the reasons why Albania is still a hidden treasure is a guy named Enver Hoxha. After the Second World War Hoxha established communism in Albania and started to isolate the country from the rest of the world. Until 1990 it was nearly impossible to visit Albania as a tourist, also the inhabitants weren’t allowed to leave their country (many were executed when trying to flee over the borders). These were long and dark years for the Albanians, but the country is getting more and more cosmopolitan since the end of the communist regime. One example is the capital Tirana with its open-minded inhabitants and its colorful buildings. Edi Rama, a painter and mayor of Tirana from 2000-2011, transformed the gray facades of the huge communist apartment buildings into artworks as he ordered the repainting in bright colors. Also, the junction boxes in the streets and any other object that can be painted shines in bold colors.
The Albanian people I met were all extremely friendly, helpful and hospitable. Asking for directions can easily end in a short walk together or people hopping into your car to navigate you to the asked destination. Some day we stopped at a gas station near Berat to get some food for lunch. The employee told us that they don’t sell food but he could call a friend of him to bring some sandwiches from the city to the gas station for us. Can you imagine that? You can also feel the cozy atmosphere in public places like parks – also, I discovered that playing domino seems to be kind of a thing here.
Berat is an age-old town in the middle of Albania with an over 2000-year-old history. It is registered as UNESCO World Heritage since 2005. A castle is part of the historic town of Berat, which enthrones on a hill behind it. There are still people living in the houses up there, as in most castles in Albania. I liked the lively atmosphere within the old castle walls – people were sitting together in their gardens, kids were playing football and there was laundry hanging out between the old houses. In the castle area you can also find a few beautiful old churches and mosques or their remains.
When I was strolling through the alleys of the historic city in the morning, I didn’t come across any other tourist. There were just two men drinking their morning coffee in front of their house and the trashman – the streets are extremely narrow and steep, so it’s not possible to collect the waste with a truck or something like that. For that reason, this man went through the whole city with a wheelbarrow that morning, collecting the trash bags which people put in front of their houses.
I loved the silent atmosphere that morning and enjoyed my walk pass these beautiful old stone houses in the northern part of Berat called Mangalem. When I crossed the river over the bridge and looked at the historic town from the other side it was suddenly obvious to me why Berat is called the “Town of a Thousand Windows”: The many big, brown framed windows of the white houses look like stacked over one another.
What you can also see when standing on the bridge is the word NEVER in big letters written on the mountains. Originally, it used to be written “ENVER” what is the surname of Hoxha (you remember, the communist guy). Some men wrote his name there in the 60ies to honor him, each letter is 100 meters high! After the fall of the regime in the 90ies, the first two letters were interchanged so it says NEVER now – Never ever Enver again!
Noriko from Japan is travelling through Albania for one week. She came to Berat as her first stop because she read that this is a beautiful city and also because its listed as an UNESCO World Heritage. Noriko loves Berat because it is a small and lovely town that isn’t that crowded with tourists. She thinks that the most important thing for tourism to be sustainable is to protect old, historic cities and monuments.
Lorenc lives in the southern part of Berat, called Gorica. He was born here and came back 6 years ago after living abroad for eleven years in Italy, England and Greece. Now he runs a guesthouse in his parents’ house and offers cool drinks in his “secret garden” – that’s how I met him. Lorenc appreciates the work of UNESCO – he thinks that this organization is very important, as it defines strict regulations for constructions in the historic town and it also raises the inhabitants’ sensitivity on how important the protection of Berat is. UNESCO also helped the city to develop a marketing strategy to attract tourists – and now more of them are coming every year. Lorenc likes the fact that different religions are no more a reason for separation in Berat – in the past, orthodox and muslim people were separated by the river, now they even get married.
In Albania, vegetarian and even vegan people can easily survive without being forced to eat salad and fries every day ;). The Albanian cuisine offers a lot of boiled vegetables in different variations. Imam Bajaldi has become one of my favorite Albanian dishes: stuffed eggplants that are cooked in a pan in the oven. Every restaurant adds different ingredients but mostly the eggplants are filled with tomatoes, peppers, onions and loads of garlic.