Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Long weekend in Albania

Before we moved to Germany, I never thought about visiting Albania, or any of the other Balkan countries for that matter. I didn't know much about Albania - the turmoil in the 90's apparently didn't make our newspapers and during their years of communism (1944-1991), they were closed off, behind the iron curtain. Today the country is struggling to catch up, and from what I observed, they have a long way to go.

We spent a few days in Tirana, the capital, and took a day trip to Durres, a beach resort and port town on the Adriatic Sea. Albania is the poorest country I've visited and I felt sad for the people. The buildings, roads and sidewalks are crumbling and in great need of repair. Many of the sewer grates and manholes are missing, leaving dangerous open holes that are not blocked off or marked in any way. You really have to watch where you walk.

There are new buildings under construction around the city, but work on them didn't appear very active. The only active work we saw were people painting at the police station and construction work on what will be the largest mosque in the Balkans. Unfortunately there are many vacant, concrete hulks of buildings where it doesn't look like any restoration effort is taking place.

Pyramid of Tirana - built in 1988 but now mostly empty except for the radio station's towers

But it's not all ugly.
Outdoor dining in the park

Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Mural on the National History Museum

The country may look poor, but everyone is not. We did see some well dressed people and more than a few Range Rovers and shiny new Mercedes. The airport is nice and modern, there's a Sheraton Hotel (we stayed there), and there are many decent restaurants to choose from (I recommend Viking). There are two small shopping malls in the city and one very large one outside the city. However, the sad fact is that there is a lot of poverty. There are many people selling things on the street, from new items to used items, from cigarettes and cell phone chargers to pantyhose (not even in a package) and second- (or third-) hand clothes and shoes. Prices are a bargain for tourists and the people driving the Range Rovers: a morning coffee costs 40 Lek (30 cents), a scoop of ice cream 50 Lek (38 cents), and a cookie in a coffee shop was 50 Lek. We spent less than $40 a day on breakfast, lunch and dinner combined. But there's a lot of unemployment and obviously a lot of people without money, otherwise there would not be so many people selling things on the streets. The Sheraton provided an Albanian English-language newspaper and the articles were primarily about the corruption in the parliament or the fact that many Albanians are "fleeing the country" for places like Germany, where they hope to find work. There's also a lot of organized crime and together with the government corruption, it must be difficult to run a legitimate business in Albania. There were also a lot of security guards - every cell phone store and bank had one - so theft is evidently a problem.

Despite the apparent need for security guards, I did not feel unsafe in Albania. I'm sure we stood out as tourists, mostly because there didn't seem to be many. Still, we were unsure if there could be a problem, so we took precautions and left our wallets in the room safe. We also didn't have our camera out all the time, snapping pictures. I felt awkward taking pictures anyway - even if the people in Tirana seem oblivious numb to the state of disrepair of their sidewalks and buildings, I didn't want to appear to be recording it for my own enjoyment, so I took very few pictures. Some things I was just too horrified about, like the river that is terribly polluted with garbage, beyond the usual plastic bottles and wrappers - I saw a baby doll, numerous shoes and who knows what clogging up the mocha-colored river that runs through the city. But I digress. Regarding safety, I felt less safe (pickpocket-wise) in Rome or Buenos Aires than I did in Tirana. There are people begging on the street but except for in Durres, where Romani children badger diners and passersby, they don't appear to harass people.

Most of our weekend was spent walking around, taking in the vibe of the city and exploring. We had planned to go to Kruja to see a castle but couldn't get transportation. We did make it to Durres, where we saw the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, market and bathhouse...with emphasis on ruins. Otherwise we spent much time enjoying a coffee or beer at an outdoor table and watching the Albanian world go by.

An Albanian beer and the Adriatic Sea (don't pay attention to the Paulaner glass - it was just the glass!)

Getting to Durres was an interesting little adventure. Our trip to Kruja didn't happen because we didn't know the system until it was too late in the day to ensure we could find transportation back, but we succeeded to get to (more popular) Durres. There is no train anymore - they took out the tracks and closed down the station in September 2013. There is no formal bus station either, instead a myriad of buses and minivans gather at different locations around the city to ferry people to nearby towns. A sign in the window tells you where the bus is going, you get on and they collect the 130 Lek (about $1) during the ride. The buses are older coaches from previous tour companies but they are relatively comfortable and have air conditioning. The buses leave when they are full, but that only takes about 30 minutes. Many locals seem to rely on these buses to get around. Both traveling to and from Durres, the bus stopped along the way to let people on or off - with no indication that there was an actual bus stop anywhere.

If you're reading my blog because you're a sewer or knitter - and you got this far - I do have a story about fabric and yarn shopping. I saw three fabric shops during our walks about town - but they were all really tiny. Not knowing how to say anything in Albanian except yes (po) and no (jo), I hesitated to go in. One shop was located near the center of the city but it looked to be mostly home dec or lux fabrics, perhaps for your interior designer or dressmaker to purchase. I did check out one shop that had rolls of fabric propped up outside the store, although it was mostly polyester fabric and nothing interested me enough to attempt to buy any (no prices listed). But perhaps the main reason I didn't buy anything was that I didn't feel welcome at all. After I looked at and felt the fabric - as you do - the older woman minding the store fussed and straightened each roll. She followed me around doing this and never once made any attempt to communicate with me, let alone greet me. Though perhaps I was in the wrong by not verbally greeting her when I first came in the store, but I do recall looking at her and acknowledging her with a smile when I entered. Oh well. As far as yarn, I only saw a few skeins of acrylic yarn and some really filthy cones of some sort of yarn in the same outdoor market where they have mountains of used clothing and shoes for sale. The booths selling the yarn also had odd assortments of zippers, elastic and other sewing notions. Not much.

I did buy some fiber-related souvenirs, however they are finished products:

Albanian wool rugs and a few other items

The small rugs were bought especially for our cats:

I spent 90 Lek (70 cents) on the "Sweet Pleasure" cookies (from Macedonia) and two candy bars, which despite the name "Albeni" sounding like "Albania", they are imported from Turkey. Most of their cookies and candies are from Italy, Turkey, Greece or other surrounding countries. Side note, and an insight into how crazy their economy is, we passed a shop that had a dress displayed with the Tchibo packaging pinned to it and a sticker showing a price of 6000 Lek ($46). Tchibo is a German chain that sells coffee and also fairly cheaply made household items and clothing. That dress, which was a very basic, short-sleeved cotton number, would sell for no more than half of that price in Germany. And it was ugly.

The booklet with the cats on it is a children's book. The title is "Seven Kittens". It just makes me smile!

We couldn't resist the silly kittens on the cover and the inside was just as delightfully amusing. I took pictures of the whole thing and posted them to an album on Facebook -  this link is supposed to let you view the album, even if you don't have a Facebook account.

Our next trip is a 180 degree change from Albania: we're going to Stockholm, Sweden. I know that we will not be eating for less than $40 a day!

In the meantime, I need to get back to the sewing room!


  1. Thanks for posting this. I have a new friend from Albania and this gives me a little insight into her country.

    1. You're welcome. I hope you can visit your new friend in Albania some day. I would have liked to have talked with some locals. I'm curious about their opinion of their government and if they feel things are improving in Albania.

  2. Greatly enjoyed reading your experiences in Albania. War damaged and ravaged countries take generations to recover, if ever. Very sad, but happy also that you shared the signs of hope and prosperity returning.

    1. It does appear better than 20 years ago, but is it better than last year? I am hopeful for them. It's sad when people must leave their country to find work.

  3. Albania was the first country in "Women in the Material World", published in about 1996. The conditions described inside the homes was pretty dire then - and that was 20 years ago. Thanks for posting!

    1. Looks like an interesting book and it looks like I can request it through the inter-library loan (the military library system is quite good here in Europe - we borrow lots of travel books, DVDs and interesting books to read from them). Thanks!

  4. Great post! My husband has worked in Mongolia for the last 11 years and the main city looks a lot like your pics--tons of what we call Soviet Charm. While pictures show lots of glass and glitz, sidewalks and landscaping are in short supply. At least Albania has the sea going for it--Mongolia is totally landlocked

    1. Mongolia is on my wish-list for traveling. Soviet Charm, yes indeed. Crumbling concrete and no unnecessary adornment.