I’m ashamed to admit that, until a week ago, this is just about all I knew about Albania:
- King Zog ruled the country in the 1920s and 1930s (History ‘O’ Level 1973)
- Mother Teresa was born there (well, in Skopje, now the capital of North Macedonia)
- Albanians worship Norman Wisdom*
There. I told you it was shamefully limited. But not now, thanks to a few days with Regent Holidays on their 50th anniversary tour of Albania. And I’d like to share my expanded knowledge of this intriguing Balkan country with other Silver Travellers.
Its location on the south-eastern Adriatic coast meant it was always strategically important, particularly in ancient times, making the country vulnerable to attacks and occupation by stronger neighbours throughout the centuries.
Visit the excellent National Historic Museum in Tirana to get a sense of the country’s evolution. Originally part of Illyria, this land was first seized by the Romans in 168 BC before subsequent control by the Byzantine Empire, Venetians, Slavs and – for almost 500 years – the Ottoman Empire, from the 15th century until early in the 20th century. The country only finally gained independence in 1912.
Separately from the two World Wars, Albania continued to suffer from a turbulent time over the last 100 years. Ahmed Zogu declared himself King Zog I, the only Muslim King in Europe, in 1928 and was Albania’s ‘despotic brigand’ leader until ousted by Mussolini in 1939.
But perhaps the world knows more about Enver Hoxha, the Communist Party leader who ruled Albania with an iron red fist from 1946 until his death in 1985. He became increasingly paranoid and isolationist, falling out with ideological comrades in Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China, condemning Albanians to a life of looking inward. Hoxha built 200,000 concrete bunkers across the country to protect against external Cold War threats, but also ruled internally through fear, surveillance and control, thanks to his ‘Sigurimi’ Secret Police.
Since the eventual fall of the Communist party in the early 1990s, Albania has changed beyond recognition. Gone are the days of flying to Montenegro, having to cross the border on foot and an enforced visit to the state barber for a conforming comradely haircut. The capital Tirana is now a vibrant, youthfully energetic city, with a population that has grown from 250,000 in 1990 to almost 1 million today. Nationally, tourism has grown from 25,000 visitors a year in 1990 to a pre-Covid 6 million in 2019.
Before you leave Tirana, visit the ‘House of Leaves’. Officially The National Museum of Secret Surveillance, this grand old house on a leafy street was a maternity hospital in the 1930s, but was used for much more sinister purposes during Hoxha’s regime. Once the Sigurimi HQ, it is now dedicated to the innocent people who were spied on, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and executed. Prepare to be intrigued by some of the surveillance equipment on display, but haunted by the lists of those tortured and murdered.
From Tirana we headed south to stay in beautiful Gjirokastra, a well-preserved Ottoman settlement whose old town, all cobbled streets and slate-roofed houses, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. From here it’s a short hop to Butrint, an ancient port city and the jewel in Albania’s archaeological crown. Close to the Greek border and located in a glorious National Park, this Bronze Age community thrived under Greek and Roman rule, expanded under the Byzantines and was abandoned in the late Middle Ages, after a brief period of Venetian occupation.
Modern Albania has much to offer as a tourist destination. Adventures in the mountains of the northern Alpine region and the south, on the Greek border. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa in the east, shared with Macedonia. A riviera and climate to rival other Mediterranean countries. An energetic, youthful capital city. Interesting and healthy food. An improving wine industry.
And an abundance of birds and wildlife…naturalists in our group spotted crested larks, bee-eaters, hoopoes and pied flycatchers, in addition to ubiquitous swifts, swallows and housemartins. Nightingales serenaded our departure from Gjirokastra and on a brief visit to the Blue Eye, a startling underwater spring near Sarandë, we saw myriad turquoise damselflies, a less welcome Balkan whip snake and an army of green frogs, ribbiting away below us in camouflaging algae.
But it is the country’s rich and layered history that is perhaps the biggest draw. Unpeel it, onion-like, by visiting the citadel towns of Gjirokrastra, Berat (‘the town of a thousand windows’), and Kruja as well as the ancient archeological gems at Butrint and Apollonia.
And I find it hard to believe there could be a better hand to hold on your journey than Regent Holidays. Pioneering trips to Albania and other off-the-beaten-track destinations since 1970, they are clearly passionate about providing travel adventures, rather than just holidays. With a small group, excellent local guides and expert insights, I discovered much more on this trip than I would have done travelling independently.
I can highly recommend exploring this fascinating Balkan gem before everyone else catches on…
*Why was Norman Wisdom so popular in Albania that he was awarded the Freedom of Tirana, and a national day of mourning was declared when he died? Probably because Hoxha’s regime was a cultural drought, banning all corrupting western culture. But Wisdom’s films contained more gentle, cleaner humour and – in his role as Mr Pitkin – could be seen as an allegorical struggle of the working class against the ruling elite. Norman’s first visit to Albania in 1995 to help fund an orphanage cemented his status. He visited again in 2001 to watch England play Albania in a World Cup qualifier, wearing a half-Albania, half-England football shirt and eclipsing even David Beckham. A year later he was in the Albanian music charts with the song ‘Big in Albania’, written by Tim Rice.
To find out more visit Regent Holidays: they specialise in adventures to interesting and unusual places, with knowledgeable guides who ensure you get the best insights and visit secret gems on your trip.